LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky has a lot of spots to fill now that a record seven players have announced they will enter the NBA draft.
In a news conference Thursday, 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein, twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and freshman forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles all said they will turn pro. Also entering are 7-0 reserve center Dakari Johnson and backup shooting guard Devin Booker, completing an exodus by the Wildcats' top seven scorers.
The 6-11 Towns could be the first player chosen overall on June 25 and 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.
"It was a tough decision for all of us, but we wanted to chase our dreams," Aaron Harrison said.
Seated before a backdrop with blown-up trading cards of recent Wildcats standouts who went pro, Kentucky's largest group of players explained the decisions that were long expected. Coach John Calipari joined them, after saying this week that five to seven players could enter.
Confirmation was more visual than verbal as Calipari asked those who were leaving to stand up. After they all looked at each other, they stood up to applause in the practice gym before answering questions.
Such leavings have become somewhat expected in Lexington in a "one-and-done" environment where players and the program succeed despite single-season stays. Calipari has developed 19 NBA draft picks, including 15 first-round selections and two No. 1 overall picks.
In 2012, five Kentucky underclassmen plus senior Darius Miller were selected following the school's eighth national championship. This year's tall, talented squad made a determined run at history with a school-record 38-game winning streak that kept them atop the rankings all season. They were the prohibitive favorites to win title No. 9 and become the first unbeaten champions since Indiana in 1976.
The latter two quests came to a sudden halt with Saturday night's 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
That stunning loss immediately raised the question of how many Wildcats would depart after a season that might not be topped. 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.
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 sustained in the NCAA Tournament. The quick, agile shot-blocking threat was a national player of the year finalist this past season and now stands to make millions of dollars by developing into a possible lottery pick along with Towns.
"This was a decision that had to be made, and now is the time to go," Cauley-Stein said.
Though the Harrisons improved on the court, it remains to be seen whether their draft stock increased. Andrew is projected as a late first-rounder at best, with brother Aaron expected to go in the second round.
Johnson figures to be a second-rounder with work ahead in many areas of his game. But his size, athleticism and willingness to fight near the basket on both ends has made him a draft hopeful.
Booker had inconsistent stretches this season, like many shooters, but possesses a smooth stroke that makes him an attractive choice.
While Kentucky's roster will get a major makeover next season, the outlook seems bright with the return of 5-9 guard Tyler Ulis, 6-9 forward Marcus Lee and 6-7 forward Alex Poythress, who's recovering from a season-ending ACL tear last December.
Kentucky has also recruited 6-3 guard Isaiah Briscoe, 6-11 forward Skal Labissiere and 6-5 guard Charles Matthews, all considered top players.
That means Kentucky could be right back here next spring.