LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins delivered on their promise to help coach John Calipari return Kentucky to national prominence.
Next stop, the NBA.
The freshman All-Americans are among five Kentucky players who declared for the NBA draft on Wednesday, an exodus that includes freshman guard Eric Bledsoe, freshman center Daniel Orton and junior forward Patrick Patterson.
Wall and Cousins are expected to be among the first few players selected after leading the Wildcats to a remarkable turnaround season in Calipari's first year on the job.
Kentucky went 35-3 this season — Calipari's first as Wildcats coach — winning the Southeastern Conference regular season and conference tournament titles before falling to West Virginia in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Calipari met with each player individually and encouraged them to gauge their draft prospects.
"It's extremely unusual for four freshmen from the same team to have this opportunity, but it's my job as a coach to prepare these young men for such opportunities," Calipari said.
Players have until May 8 to change their minds, as long as they don't hire agents. It's highly unlikely any of the five players will come back for another season with the Wildcats.
Certainly not Wall, who was the SEC player of the year after averaging 16.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds while becoming a highlight-reel staple for his breathtaking play in the open floor.
"I'm not the same player as when I arrived at UK," Wall said in a statement. "I believe I'm ready for the next challenge as Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans were the last two years under Coach Cal."
Calipari said early in the season that Wall was more evolved as a freshman than either Rose and Evans — both of whom starred as point guards for Calipari at Memphis before heading to the NBA.
Wall is a good bet to be the first pick in the draft, the way Rose in 2008.
The 6-foot-4 Wall then spent the next five months largely living up to the hype. He hit a jumper at the buzzer to lift Kentucky to victory over Miami (Ohio) in his first regular season game but did his best to share the spotlight. His 241 assists set a Kentucky single-season record.
Many of those assists came courtesy of baskets by Cousins, the SEC freshman of the year who will likely join Wall as one of the first players drafted. The 6-11, 270-pound center averaged 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds, numbers that could have been significantly higher if he hadn't struggled with foul trouble and his temper early in the season that severely limited his playing time.
When he was on the floor, Cousins was often the team's most dominant player and once he learned to control his emotions, he became borderline unstoppable.
"Coach challenged me to grow on and off the court this season," Cousins said. "I believe my game expanded along with my maturity. This year was the most fun I've ever had playing basketball."
It certainly looked like it while the player nicknamed "Boogie" helped Kentucky return to its place among the national elite. The Wildcats won their first 20 games and briefly rose to No. 1 in the polls.
It's a rise that seemed hard for Patterson to fathom during his first two years with the team as the program slumped under former coach Billy Gillispie.
Patterson could have gone to the NBA last spring but opted to stick around to expand his game in Calipari's "dribble-drive" offense while also finishing his degree. He averaged a career-low 14.3 points but became a better shooter and fit in with his less-experienced teammates.
If the departure of Wall, Patterson and Cousins was expected, Bledsoe's and Orton's decision to join their teammates in the draft came as a bit of a surprise.
Bledsoe averaged 11.3 points and proved to be just as fast as Wall in the open floor and an even better long-range shooter. Bledsoe's 49 3-pointers were second on the team and he made eight 3-pointers in a romp over East Tennessee State in the opening round of the NCAAs.
"I never thought I'd be in this position after one year," Bledsoe said. "Coach Cal pushed us all to be the best we could be and he believes I'm prepared to take my game to the next level."
Orton, thought to be a project when he came in, instead became the team's best defender while filling in for Cousins. He averaged a modest 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per but also finished among the leaders in the SEC in blocks (53). Orton said going against Patterson and Cousins in practice each day helped him believe he could make it in the NBA.
If they all leave, it leaves Calipari with a rebuilding project on par with the one he inherited a year ago. The departure of Wall and company combined with the graduation of Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson and Mark Krebs leaves Kentucky with just five players returning next year, only three of whom — guards DeAndre Liggins and Darnell Dodson and forward Darius Miller — played significant minutes this season.
Calipari will try to replace them with another highly ranked recruiting class, though one that will find it difficult to duplicate the magic Wall and company brought to Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats already have commitments from center Enes Kanter and Stacey Poole and are considered to be in the mix for a handful of elite recruits, including guard Brandon Knight.