Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It was a bit of a shock when the Kentucky men's basketball program - which was 38-0 entering the Final Four - was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Wisconsin.
The Wildcats were the favorites not only in the contest, but to win the tournament as well, although many had the Badgers pegged as a team that could unseat the would-be king of the college basketball world.
And that's exactly what happened in Kentucky's 71-64 defeat in Indianapolis. Wisconsin gained a big lead in each half only to have Kentucky battle back to go ahead. When it mattered the most though, the Badgers edged ahead to down the no-longer-perfect Wildcats.
If you look ahead, though, the disappointing end to the NCAA Tournament will likely fade away in the minds of the Kentucky players who will enter the upcoming NBA Draft on June 25. The number of athletes on Kentucky's roster who have at least expressed an interest in turning pro are staggering (though by now coach John Calipari is used to it).
With the acclaim of Kentucky's 38-0 run before the loss to Wisconsin, it's no wonder a handful of Wildcats improved their draft stock as the pro selection spectacle looms in the not-so-distant future.
Across the board, Kentucky has the most pro-ready players on its roster than any other basketball program. But there are plenty of others across the nation who also used the NCAA Tournament as a springboard to propel their draft stock to new heights.
Many wondered whether any player could challenge Duke's Jahlil Okafor, who was projected to be the top overall draft selection in 2015 before the big man even landed on campus, for the distinction. Thanks to a stellar tournament run, perhaps Kentucky's freshman sensation Karl-Anthony Towns is it.
The 6-foot-11 freshman was widely predicted to be a top-10 target, but he certainly cemented his place in the top three after netting 25 points with five rebounds and four assists against Notre Dame in an overtime Elite Eight bout, and a 16-point, nine-rebound effort in the loss to Wisconsin.
Considering Towns is a freshman, there's still plenty of time left for him to develop. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is April 26, though he's already made the decision to turn pro. He's certainly one of the most pro-ready players in the entire class.
Both NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com have Towns slotted as the top overall pick over Okafor, who became the first freshman to win the ACC Player of the Year Award in 2014-15.
Okafor was the Duke player who garnered the most attention throughout the season, but both small forward Justise Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones proved their freshman chops could handle the pressure of guiding one of the most storied programs in the college basketball landscape.
Winslow's stock has risen the most after his tournament run in which he showed the ability to score from anywhere on the floor and provide a balanced stat line in helping lead Duke to the title game. Winslow is NBA size, and he demonstrated how effective he can be in games against Gonzaga (16 points, five rebounds), Michigan State in the Final Four (team-best 19 points and nine rebounds) and in the national championship against Wisconsin (11 points, nine rebounds).
Winslow went from being a mid-first-round choice to easily a top-10 target in no time flat. The deadly small forward could go as high as fourth or fifth.
Jones is a bit polarizing on NBA mock draft sheets, but he's turned many heads after his maturity levels were put on display during the tournament. As the point guard of a team in the national title fight, Jones needed to play beyond his years as the bracket progressed. And he did just that time and time again.
That maturity was on display once again in the national championship clash. The 6-foot-1 point guard netted 23 points with five rebounds, and was named the game's most outstanding player after hitting some of Duke's most crucial shots down the stretch.
In three major online mock drafts, Jones is projected to be a mid-to-late first-round selection, moving up from the second round in most formats.
When it comes to evaluating underclassmen in the draft before the declaration deadline, it can be hard to place a tag on players like Towns and Jones as their future remains unclear. But seniors like Notre Dame's Jerian Grant and Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky are both undoubtedly headed to the professional level, and both played well enough in the NCAAs to raise their stock to the point in which they are projected mid-first-round talents.
The tournament did wonders for Kaminsky, who helped bury Kentucky in the Final Four by netting 20 points with 11 rebounds. His ability to stretch the floor offensively with the long-range shot plus his post-up ability will attract professional teams. As a 7-footer, the national player of the year has the ability to clear the boards as well. Kaminsky scored 111 combined points in Wisconsin's first five tournament games, and then proceeded to add 21 with 12 rebounds in the national championship.
Grant has always been regarded as a likely first-round selection, but the oversized point guard for the Fighting Irish proved he can do so much more than just be a scorer. In the overtime loss to Kentucky, Grant netted 15 points with six assists and a pair of steals, and narrowly missed a double- double against defense-driven Wichita State in the Sweet 16 with nine points and 11 helpers.
Another Wisconsin player that greatly improved his stock was Sam Dekker, a big 6-foot-9 small forward that is extremely athletic and an incredibly adept scorer. He was a big part of the run for the Badgers, but continuously got overshadowed by Kaminsky. Dekker, who moved up into the early-to-mid first round in online mock drafts from the bottom of the first/early second, scored 16 against Kentucky, added 27 points in the win over Arizona in the Elite Eight, and came up with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double against North Carolina. The hard-working forward can provide an NBA squad with a versatile offensive game. He scored 12 with eight rebounds in the title bout.
And if many scouts had not heard of Georgia State shooting guard R.J. Hunter before the tournament, they certainly have him on draft reports now.
The junior, who was coached by his father Ron at the Sun Belt Conference program, hit the biggest shot of the entire tournament in the second round - a severely deep 3-pointer that lifted his Panthers past third-seeded Baylor for the upset bid.
Hunter, who is naturally receiving plenty of push from his dad in the hopes he returns for his senior season, is viewed as a later first-round pick. Since he commanded the spotlight early in the tournament, teams have realized Hunter has the ability to shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor, using his length and dribbling ability to separate from defenders. He could use some work defensively, however.
When the spotlight is the greatest, sometimes we find out who the real stars are. The NCAA Tournament did wonders for a handful of players who were not only looking to win a championship, but to improve on their abilities as they get set to take on the next challenge at the professional level.