His homestate school was playing for a national championship Monday night, but James Young probably wasn’t paying that much attention.
The Detroit-area native didn’t grow up a Michigan Wolverines fan, despite the Ann Arbor campus being just an hour’s drive from his house.
Tom Izzo has taken nearby Michigan State to six Final Fours and won a national championship in Young’s lifetime, but he wasn’t a Spartans supporter either.
While his friends wore green or maize, Young preferred Kentucky blue.
“It’s always been my school,” the McDonald’s All-American told the Herald-Leader last week. “I’ve had UK stuff forever. Even before Calipari, I always used to watch them — it was my dream school. So when he called and wanted me to go there, it was a blessing.”
The call from John Calipari was a long time coming. At least, it seemed that way to Young.
The 6-foot-6 wing player was already a well-regarded prospect when he started lighting up the Nike EYBL circuit last spring. Young was listing UK and Kansas as his top two schools, in that order, at this time last year. One problem: He didn’t have an offer from either.
Michigan State had already offered, but Young wanted more interest from Kentucky. He was playing as well as anyone in the country, and UK’s coaches couldn’t help but take notice.
Young used the media to actively lobby for a UK offer, regularly wore UK gear, and kept playing at a high level.
Finally, the offer came. A few months later, Young announced that he would be a Wildcat.
“It’s just a great community and it’s a basketball school,” Young said. “Everybody wants to be there for basketball.
“A lot of people banged on me like, ‘Why didn’t you go to Michigan? Michigan State? It’s your hometown.’ But I’ve always wanted to leave the state for college. I talked it over with my family and it’s something I felt like I should do.”
Young was in the middle of another big change as he dealt with the local backlash over his college decision.
He had spent his first three seasons of high school at Troy, but he said before his senior year that he wanted to move back with his mother in Rochester. The two towns are 10 minutes apart and both are suburbs of Detroit.
Young’s coaches and teammates at Troy were caught off guard, and the folks at Rochester were just as surprised.
“I got a call from Rochester’s coach saying he had enrolled at Rochester and he just wanted to make sure I knew about it,” Troy Coach Gary Fralick told the Herald-Leader last fall. “I said, ‘Well, I certainly did not know that.’
“Not a very happy surprise.”
Fralick said Young was 55 points shy of breaking Troy’s all-time scoring record — which was set by Fralick’s son — and the coach was disappointed with the decision.
But he wished Young well at Rochester and said his former player would be a great fit at Kentucky.
“He’s extremely unselfish,” Fralick said. “They’re going to love him. You got four scorers on the floor and James will be the passer. And he’ll enjoy it.
“He’s very, very coachable. Always trying to please. Very easy to coach and a good teammate.”
Young, who lived with his guardian’s family while at Troy, said last week that he simply wanted to spend a year with his mother before it was time to go off to college.
Leaving his teammates was a tough decision, but he’s convinced he made the right choice.
“After all we’d been through for three years, it was hard to leave them,” he said. “But it was a great senior year.”
Young averaged 26.4 points, 14.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.4 steals per game and led Rochester to its first regional title since 1950.
His next task will be helping Kentucky get back to the Final Four in 2014.
Young says his role on next season’s squad of superstars will be to bring energy to the court and do whatever Calipari asks of him. He’s made his reputation as a scorer, but he’s a tremendous rebounder for his size, and his coaches say he can be a solid defender at the college level.
He’s also not afraid of competition. Young can play the “2” and “3” positions, but Aaron Harrison will almost certainly start at shooting guard, and Alex Poythress (or possibly Andrew Wiggins) could be the starting small forward.
The more the merrier, says Young.
“More great players is just an easier way to get a championship,” he said. “So the more great players we can get, it’s just an easier way for us to succeed on the court. So I say we bring in the best players we can.”
If UK lands Wiggins, he’ll likely take away any chance Young has at cracking the starting lineup. But the five-star recruit is ready for anything, and he isn’t worried about playing time.
“Nah. Not at all,” he said. “If I have to come off the bench to score, that’s what I have to do to help the team.”