GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A record seven players are leaving a mighty Kentucky team after a season that fell two wins short of a championship. They can look forward to a possible reunion in a couple of months at the NBA draft.
The soon-to-be-former Wildcats gathered at their practice gym and said they will turn pro: 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, freshman forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles and freshman backup guard Devin Booker.
The exodus, which featured Kentucky’s top seven scorers, could have been even greater.
“If Alex Poythress doesn’t get hurt, it would’ve been eight,” coach John Calipari said, referring to the junior forward who sustained a season-ending torn knee ligament in December.
Such exits have become the norm in Lexington, a one-and-done environment where players and the program thrive despite single-season stays. Calipari has developed 19 NBA draft picks, including 15 first-round selections and two No. 1 overall picks.
The 6-11 Towns could be the first player chosen overall on June 25. Cauley-Stein and Lyles could soon follow, with both projected as possible lottery selections. Booker is also a potential first-rounder, with the rest projected to go in the second.
That draft forecast persuaded them to take the next step in moves that had been long expected since their campus arrivals.
“It was a tough decision for all of us, but we wanted to chase our dreams,” Aaron Harrison said.
Seated before a backdrop of blown-up trading cards of recent Wildcats standouts now in the NBA, Kentucky’s largest group of would-be pros explained their decisions. Calipari joined them after saying this week that five to seven players could enter.
Confirmation was more visual than verbal, with Calipari asking those who were leaving to stand. After they all looked at each other and hesitated, they stood up to applause before answering questions on the podium and then separately.
This year’s team made a determined run at history with a school-record 38-game winning streak that kept them ranked No. 1 all season. They were the prohibitive favorites to win title No. 9 and become the first unbeaten champions since Indiana in 1976.
Then came Saturday night’s 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That immediately raised the question of how many Wildcats would be leaving. After all, many of them surprised Calipari and others last spring by deciding to return for second and even third seasons in an effort to win a championship and improve their draft stock.
“Now, it’s about each individual making the decision,” Calipari said, “not based on what’s right for this university, not based on what’s right for me and our staff, but what’s right for them and their families.”
The gamble appears to have worked out for players such as Cauley-Stein, who chose to return for his junior season after missing last year’s title game with an ankle injury in the NCAA Tournament. The quick, agile shot-blocking threat was among the country’s best and now stands to make millions as a possible lottery pick along with Towns.
“Basketball happened to be the last thing I played, but now I get a chance to be in the league,” he said. “I get a chance to take a step forward and do something I’ve been dreaming about since I was 7 years old and pretending that I’m playing against Tim Duncan. You grow up dreaming and you get a chance to do it. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Though Calipari now has to hit the recruiting trail to replenish half his roster, the outlook seems bright with the return of 5-9 guard Tyler Ulis, 6-9 forward Marcus Lee and possibly the 6-8 Poythress, who the coach said will talk with his family about his future. Kentucky also has three top recruits coming in.
That means Kentucky could be right back in the mix next spring, though it will indeed be hard to top what these Wildcats built.
“I’m so happy with this moment,” Towns said, “not just for myself, but for the other ones that they get to chase their dreams also.”
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