Morris should star, at least for a year
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky being Kentucky, it has had players leave early for the pros before.
Jamal Mashburn and Nazr Mohammed left the bluegrass for the big bucks after three years. Ron Mercer and Antoine Walker left after two. Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, Rex Chapman also declared after his sophomore year.
But Kentucky has been blessed with a run of four-year guys in recent years, from Jamaal Magloire to Tayshaun Prince to Keith Bogans to Erik Daniels and Gerald Fitch. The one thing the Wildcats have avoided, what has plagued Duke, Michigan State, Syracuse, Alabama and other programs in recent years, is the one-and-done player.
Until, perhaps, now.
Center Randolph Morris, considered the biggest and brightest talent in Tubby Smith's four-star recruiting class, narrowly decided to come to school in the first place. His Atlanta-area AAU teammates, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, both blew off college and hit the NBA lottery. Morris weighed joining them down to the last minute last May before casting his lot in Lexington -- in part because of a spring sell job from future teammates Rajon Rondo and Joe Crawford.
|“||I'm looking to go for a national championship, that's my biggest thing. ... I want to stay until I get one. ”|
|— Randolph Morris|
"(The NBA) was right up there with college," Morris said. "Kentucky, Georgia Tech and the NBA were all on an equal plane. But I wasn't ready for that -- basketball as 82 games, basketball as an occupation. I'm pretty happy where I am now."
Kentucky fans are pretty happy with his current whereabouts, too. The 6-foot-10, 270-pounder should provide the interior muscle and athleticism that the Wildcats missed in 2003-04.
Smith has been toying with a super-sized lineup of 7-foot sophomore Lukasz Obrzut at center, Morris at power forward and 6-6 banger Chuck Hayes at small forward. A more likely lineup would seem to have Morris at center, surrounded by high-caliber athletes at the other four positions.
But how long will he stay? If you wanted to put an over-under on it, try 36 games -- the number the Cats could play if they make it to the national championship game in St. Louis. Kentucky fans would love to take the over, but it would be a tough bet.
"It'll definitely be year by year," Morris said. "I'll see where I am. I'm looking to go for a national championship, that's my biggest thing. ... I want to stay until I get one."
That being said, Morris admits the NBA's pull on him.
"It's always going to be in the back of your mind," he said. "It's every player's dream to go to the NBA."
Morris' first appearance in a blue-and-white uniform came last week, in an exhibition game against Division II Northern Kentucky. His stat line was modest: two points and five rebounds, and the numbers paled in comparison to the make-it-happen debut of point guard Rondo (16 points, six steals). Crawford and fellow freshman guard Ramel Bradley also made plays that hinted at their prodigious potential.
But it was Morris who stepped up first among the frosh, blocking three straight Northern Kentucky shots during one stretch in the first half -- exactly the kind of inside presence Smith loves and lacked last season. Rupp Arena responded with a standing ovation, and the Cats responded with more aggressive play after a tentative start.
"Randolph Morris is a really special player," Smith said. "He's probably the strongest player we've recruited in a long time & and he's got all the intangibles: the heart, the hustle, the IQ. He has basketball intelligence, and he's an intelligent kid.
"He's a guy we need a lot of minutes out of."
The more minutes, the greater the production, the better this Kentucky team will be. And, it would stand to reason, the closer Morris and his classmates would be to the NBA.
"You're going to work as hard as you can with them, try to bring the best out of them," Smith said. "But you also realize they have that potential to move to the next level at an earlier age than some of our previous players we've had.
"We've had some players who tried to leave (early). I contend they're better off staying and trying to mature physically and emotionally."
By all accounts, Morris is extremely mature for his age on both fronts. He has a man's body, a size-17 foot and a good mind for the game. He's also a guy with a playful streak. Crawford, Morris' roommate, describes him as "very smart, but kind of silly, too. He goofs around a lot. It's kind of funny seeing a big guy that silly."
Morris kept a poker face when asked about his silly side, but his personality is hard to miss. When asked by one reporter what he'd say about himself if he were Dick Vitale, his answer was quick: "I'd be a PTP'er. & I've been a PTP'er since I picked up a basketball."
Here's the question that will simmer beneath the surface all season: How many chances will Vitale get to call Randolph Morris a PTP'er before Morris leaves for the League?
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.