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Kentucky products dominate the NBA and the Wildcats are loaded once again, but recent success has been elusive

Almost every year, Kentucky lands highly rated, five-star recruits who go on to be one-and-done prospects. Head coach John Calipari can be seen mingling in the green room on draft night, sitting at the table of one of his prized recruits. In the last nine NBA drafts, Kentucky has had 14 players selected in the first round and there are currently 28 former Wildcats in the NBA or G League. Kentucky has the most active NBA players with Duke second (24) and UCLA third (15).

It's not just about quantity for Kentucky, as a handful of former Wildcats are producing at an extremely high level in the NBA. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 31.1 points, 6.5 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Anthony Davis, when healthy, is dominant for the Lakers, posting 40 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in an overtime win over the Wizards on Feb. 29 and helping to lead L.A. to a championship in 2020. Tyrese Maxey is coming into his own in Philadelphia, making an All-Star roster for the first time and the favorite to be named the league's Most Improved Player. Prior to tearing his meniscus, Karl-Anthony Towns was instrumental in helping the Timberwolves' to the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are key players on a Miami team that made a run to the NBA Finals last season.

According to HoopsHype global rating, Kentucky has nine players in the NBA's top 50, more than any other collegiate program. With how well former Wildcats are doing in the NBA (especially guards), scouts have to approach Kentucky players differently when evaluating them prior to hitting the league.

"No one wants to be the team that passes on another Tyrese Maxey," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "Coach Cal has a knack for landing talent, and even if there are faults in their game during the one or two years in college, the track record speaks for itself and it's more so looking ahead to how a player's game will translate in the NBA and not a college system."

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - MARCH 6: Rob Dillingham #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against Ven-Allen Lubin #2 of the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Rupp Arena on March 6, 2024 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Rob Dillingham of Kentucky goes to the hole against Ven-Allen Lubin of Vanderbilt during the second half at Rupp Arena on March 6, 2024, in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) (Michael Hickey via Getty Images)

This college season has been mostly positive for Calipari's program. Kentucky had the No.1 recruiting class and is currently ranked No. 15 with a 22-8 record. However, there have been a few bumps in the road. Kentucky lost to UNC Wilmington by eight in December and lost three straight games at Rupp Arena for the first time in school history in late January.

This is a far cry from the 2012 team that went undefeated in conference play and won a national championship. Or in 2015, when the Wildcats went 38-1, losing in the Final Four to Wisconsin. In Calipari's first six years in Lexington, he reached the Elite Eight five times and had four Final Four appearances. The last two seasons have ended in a loss to No. 15 tourney seed St. Peter's in 2022, and in 2023, as a sixth-seed, Kentucky lost to No. 3 Kansas State in the second round. Kentucky has also missed the tournament in three of the past five seasons.

The talent is definitely there for this Kentucky team to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. There are potentially seven NBA players on the roster with two likely lottery picks in freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham and three 7-footers (Aaron Bradshaw, Ugonna Onyenso and Zvonimir Ivišić). There's also upperclassman talent in Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell.

Dillingham has been the biggest surprise with how well he's played off the bench. Calipari has let him play freely within his system, and it's paid off. Dillingham was known as a playmaker heading into the season, but NBA scouts were curious to see how he would perform off the dribble and if he could create separation at just 6-foot-2. Dillingham has had zero issues, hitting step-back 3s with a defender in his face and elevating in the lane over taller players for mid-range jumpers. He's clutch down the stretch in big games and has become the guy with the ball in his hands when the clock is running down.

Sheppard is a Kentucky legacy with both of his parents playing for the Wildcats in the '90s. Similar to Dillingham, there wasn't much hype surrounding Sheppard heading into the season, but he quickly changed that with how dynamic he was on defense and demonstrating an IQ beyond his freshman status. He leads the team in steals (2.6) and assists (4.5) and has become Kentucky's do-it-all glue guy this season.

"Whatever it takes to win, I'm good with," Sheppard told Yahoo Sports last year. "Whether that's going out and shooting 3s, or making assists or getting some water. No matter what, I'm good as long as the team is winning."

On paper, this Kentucky squad should be streamrolling through the SEC, but that's where it's fallen short. The Wildcats are currently in a four-way tie for second with South Carolina, Auburn and Alabama in conference play. The team has a lot of offensive output, but can't string together stops defensively. The Wildcats are currently ranked 98th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and 81st in total rebounds. This doesn't feel like a talent problem, but more of an issue with coaching, timing and effort.

"What Kentucky does defensively is all about length and personnel," an NBA Eastern Conference scout told Yahoo Sports. "The fact that [Cal] has to adjust to continuity each year with new recruiting classes is affecting him most on the defensive side with rotation and physicality. That's an easier adjustment at the NBA level and not something you perfect in a 35-game season."

Still, that hasn't shielded Calipari from the criticism that he doesn't get the most out of his talent.

"Please just leave my players [alone], let them be young and learn and keep attacking me," Calipari abruptly told reporters after a win over Auburn on Feb. 17. "I might be the worst in the country. Just attack me and leave these kids alone."

Kentucky will face No. 4 Tennessee on Saturday with a chance to separate itself from the pack and get a win over the top team in the SEC. The Vols have already beaten the Wildcats once this season at Rupp Arena and several NBA scouts and executives will be on hand in Knoxville to watch the next wave of Kentucky talent hitting the NBA. Whether Kentucky can make a deep run in the tournament is still yet to be determined, but there's something about this program that translates to the NBA.

It just hasn't been translating to major success in recent seasons.