Kentucky can win SEC without Kanter

Kentucky is the team to beat in the SEC heading into Saturday’s conference opener at Georgia.

And that’s without 6-10 freshman forward Enes Kanter, who was ruled permanently ineligible on Friday, upholding a previous NCAA decision that deemed he received impermissible benefits while playing for a professional team in his native Turkey.

The Wildcats never had Kanter this season. He wasn’t even eligible to play on the team’s three-game preseason trip to Canada in August. So all this talk, hype and expectation of what Kanter could do for Kentucky was never a factor in the development of this team.

UK coach John Calipari said a number of times to ESPN.com over the past few months that Kanter would help the Wildcats, but he made it clear that no one player was going to dominate and be the savior. Maybe he was saying this to temper expectations of the Big Blue Nation about the possibilities Kanter could provide for Kentucky in its chase for the national title. But Calipari never had to gameplan with Kanter in mind.

One NBA director of scouting told ESPN.com Friday night that Kanter would still likely be selected in the top five in the NBA draft in June now that he has been ruled permanently ineligible. That thinking hasn’t changed since the preseason, when NBA scouts watched him work out in Lexington, or even in early November, when one NBA scout told ESPN.com in Puerto Rico that he had just come from watching Kanter and was convinced he would be a top-three selection if he declared in the spring.

So, obviously Kanter would have made a difference for the Wildcats. Penn assistant coach Dan Leibovitz, whose Quakers lost to Kentucky 86-62 Monday, said on Friday night how the coaching staff discussed “how good they’d be with him.’’ But they were impressed by how much of a factor senior forward Josh Harrellson was for the Wildcats. Harrellson, who scored 23 points and grabbed 14 boards in a win at Louisville on Dec. 31, scored 12 and corralled 11 boards against Penn for his second-straight double-double.

“With what they do offensively,’’ Leibovitz said. “Having a big that makes layups goes a long way.’’

Kanter could do that and more in the post. But Harrellson, though not a traditional low-block player, has proven himself more than serviceable for a team that relies heavily on perimeter players like Brandon Knight (18.3 ppg) and Doron Lamb (14.1 ppg) offensively, as well as slashing forward Terrence Jones (17.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg).

“We had our hands full with them and we couldn’t keep them off the backboard,’’ said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose Irish were outrebounded 40-33 in a 72-58 loss to the Wildcats on Dec. 8 in the SEC-Big East Invitational in Louisville. Harrellson had nine boards in that game.

“I’m really impressed with Harrellson and what he’s doing for them,’’ Brey said Friday. “He’s playing his role. They’ve all gotten better. They’re a young team, which is getting reps. I thought they’d be young when we played them but they’re playing older and getting better and better.’’

Kanter is done as a college player because he was deemed to have received more than $33,000 in impermissible benefits while playing for the Turkish club team Fenerbache two years ago. He was a rarity, a foreign player who was a lock for the lottery yet tried to play college basketball. Foreign players sought at that level of the NBA draft don’t come to the United States to play college basketball anymore. The last one that considered it was Dirk Nowitzki, when Cal was pursuing him. He opted for the draft.

Fellow Turkish nationals like West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli, who was suspended for 20 games under a previous NCAA rule for playing alongside a professional in Turkey, or Texas guard Dogus Balbay, weren’t talented enough to declare for the NBA draft. They needed to develop so they came to college. They may never be NBA players. They weren’t even playing at a high enough level to command the type of expenses that Kanter did on his club team, even as a teenager.

Kanter was essentially deemed a professional by the NCAA in its final ruling Friday. Kentucky is irate over his inability to gain eligibility, especially in comparison to other extra benefit cases. But the one certainty throughout the whole process was that the Wildcats can still win the SEC without Kanter.

Kanter’s college career is over, but it never started. It’s unfortunate for him, but it’s his loss. Kentucky didn’t lose anything in this case. It never had the chance to have him and the Wildcats will still be a Final Four contender and SEC title favorite without him.