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Kentucky’s problem isn’t its freshmen, it’s finding three and four-year players to stick with the program


© Denny Medley | USATSI

Over the course of the last few weeks and especially the last few days, there hasn’t been a hotter topic in all of college basketball than the simple question of “What’s wrong with Kentucky?”

Assuming of course that you think something is “wrong” with the youngest team in college basketball “only” sitting at 17-6, than the answer to the question essentially boils down to one simple topic: Recruiting. Some believe that Kentucky needs to stop recruiting “one and done” players altogether, while some point to the fact that over the last couple years they haven’t gotten the best one and done players (something I disagree with and will argue about later on). Virtually everyone agrees that Kentucky is simply too young, and needs to recruit more three and four-year college players like the Virginia’s and Villanova’s of the world do.

But while the idea of recruiting more three and four year players sounds great on paper, for a school like Kentucky, it’s actually harder than most realize. Which is why I’m writing today: Because I believe Kentucky’s biggest problem is one that no one is talking about. It’s not that Kentucky hasn’t recruited three and four year college players (think Marcus Lee, Isaac Humphries and Charles Matthews). Kentucky’s actual problem is, how do you get them to stay on campus, when they have no idea what their role will be two or three years down the road? In essence, how do you successfully recruit three and four year college players, when you may – in any given year – recruit over them with a great one and done player?

Before we get into that, I want to start by dispelling a very dumb myth: Despite what people are saying, no, John Calipari has not “lost his recruiting touch.” While all the focus is on Calipari missing on the big names in recent years (Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Marvin Bagley), it’s not like he didn’t miss out on big names early in his career (think Shabazz Muhammad, Jaylen Brown and Emmanuel Mudiay) when he was the unquestioned best recruiter in college basketball. Also it’s not like Cal is scraping at the bottom of the barrel either. For all the talk about Cal “losing his touch” the current Kentucky freshman class includes six of the Top 25 recruits in last year’s class. Six!!! Not to mention that in addition to those six players, Kentucky was also thiiiiiiiiiiis close to getting Trae Young and Mo Bamba as part of this class as well. Can you imagine that?

Therefore, the issue (at least in my mind) isn’t really about the freshmen, but the players behind them. As we learned with Duke’s loss to St. John’s this weekend, even the best freshmen are going to have off-nights. They’re also going to have games where they face a fearless, hungry team and take a loss. It happens to Duke and it happens to Kentucky too. And it will continue to happen to any school that is overly reliant on freshmen.

Therefore, as nice as star freshmen are, you need some older veteran guys too, the ones who stay calm and handle adversity, and who also show up each and every night. Kentucky has just a hint of that with Wenyen Gabriel and to a smaller degree Sacha Killeya-Jones, but clearly not enough. To use John Calipari’s words, they don’t have enough “fight” when the going gets tough. More than more talent, they need guys who have been there before, who will come out focused every game and won’t flinch when adversity hits. You know who Kentucky needed on Saturday at Missouri? It wasn’t Trae Young or another superstar freshman. In my mind, they needed Charles Matthews.

It might sound insane, but hear me out.

To backtrack (for those who have forgotten) Matthews is a former Kentucky player who came in with the same recruiting class as Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries two seasons ago. But after barely playing his freshman year, he elected to leave and transfer to Michigan. After sitting out last year he is now the Wolverines leading scorer at over 14 points per game, and is also averaging five boards, three assists and a steal and block per game. He’s the kind of tough, powerful, mature (keyword there) guard, who can simply overwhelm undersized opponents.

Now granted, even if Matthews were at Kentucky, it’s not as though all their problems would be solved. I’m not arguing they’d be undefeated or ranked in the Top 5 with him on the roster. But at the same time Matthews would be a pretty darn nice piece to have in the starting lineup alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox in the backcourt. And with all due respect, it feels almost certain that he’d give the Wildcats more consistent play than Hamidou Diallo has this season. Understand, that’s not a knock on Diallo. Just that he’s a young player on a young team who is being asked to do too much.

Of course that’s all just fantasy, since Matthews isn’t with this team. Neither is Briscoe or Humphries, two classmates who came in with Matthews but decided to turn pro and are both playing overseas right now. I’ve also got to wonder how much those guys would help this young team too. For all the headaches Briscoe reportedly gave Coach Cal behind the scenes, he was a relatively steady guard who could be doing big things for this year’s team. Humphries still might not be starting had he returned this year, but also just seemed to be getting comfortable in Lexington when he decided to leave. Remember, he played arguably his best game as a Wildcat in that Elite Eight loss to North Carolina last March.

Yet instead of being in Lexington for their junior seasons, all three elected to leave Kentucky. And while each had their own individual reason for the decision, it all likely boiled down to the fact that they didn’t want to return to Lexington not knowing what their role would be. In most programs, players get more playing time and minutes the longer they stay in the program. But that’s no guaranteed at Kentucky, where in any given year you might get jumped by an incoming, superstar freshman.

And ultimately, that is the biggest problem to me with both Kentucky now and going forward in the future:  How do you recruit three and four-year guys, when they have no idea what the roster will look like, or what their role will be, season to season?

Now look I know what a lot of you are thinking: “But Aaron, Virginia and Villanova are able to recruit three and four-year guys and there are never any issues. Kentucky needs to do that too! It really isn’t that hard. Just take a few guys that aren’t Top 10 or even Top 15 prospects, let them sit on the bench and develop for a season or two and they’ll be fine.”

But while that sounds good, it isn’t so simple. To use Virginia and Villanova as an example, they can recruit three and four-year guys and tell them “look, if you just follow our plan, you’ll be starting by the time you’re a junior.” Kentucky can’t. Because Kentucky has no idea who they will be recruiting by the time that player is a junior or senior. Virginia and Villanova on the other hand might not know the exact names of the players who will be on the roster two or three years down the road, but they know what kind of guys they’ll be recruiting. Those “kind of guys” are two, three and four year players who will need time to develop. Just like the players who come in before them.

At Kentucky though? Well, it’s a whole other ball-game. One year, they might recruit a dynamic, program-changing point guard like John Wall. The next year, they might miss on one altogether, but bring in two dynamic wings, or a wing and post-player. Then the next year, it’s back to the star point guard, and the following year, they’ll have a dominant low-post star like Anthony Davis. See why that might be confusing to a four-year recruit? Not only do they have no idea who they’ll be playing with. They don’t even know the style they’ll be playing. To take Matthews as an example, he could very well be the star of this year’s team. But there’s no guarantee it’d be the same next year.

(For the record, this is also something that’s quickly becoming an issue at Duke. While everyone is focused on the stars like Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen, the thing no one is talking about is that the Blue Devils have absolutely no bench. Over the last couple years, older players who should be occupying those spots like Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter have transferred (they’re now at USC and Arizona respectively) because they have no idea how their role will change season to season. Duke also just lost another freshman named Jordan Tucker, who transferred to Butler for the same reason. And you know what’s happened because of it? Duke has no bench. They got just six total bench minutes against Virginia (six!) and former walk-on Justin Robinson has seen major playing time this year)

But back to Kentucky, because the sad part is, I don’t know what the answer is to this problem. I can’t imagine John Calipari is going to all of a sudden stop recruiting one and done kids altogether. After all, he’s always recruited the “best of the best” (dating back to his Memphis days). Plus, if a Zion Williamson or Mo Bamba is interested in Kentucky, it’s not like Calipari can or should say “no thanks.” No coach in America would.

At the same time, it’s something that John Calipari does in fact need to get figured out.

It’s something that has hurt his program this season. And will only continue to hurt it, until he finds a solution.

Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres on Facebook or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

48 responses to “Kentucky’s problem isn’t its freshmen, it’s finding three and four-year players to stick with the program”

  1. bosch8184

    Answer: Stop recruiting “over” them and give them a chance. Humphries would have done extremely well on this year’s team and would have had tons of opportunities.

    Should have recruited him to stay, way harder than they recruited Ricahrds to come.

    Tai going to be same story this year. Never got an opportunity.

    1. Kevin C

      Cal didn’t recruit over Humphries, or even Marcus Lee…they both left to be close to home/family. Nick Richards wasn’t even in the picture when Humphries announced he was leaving.

    2. timewilltell

      You are wrong my friend. Cal knew Richards was coming a year ago b

    3. BBNDan7

      So you’re saying that when a 5 star of the same position wants to come to Kentucky we should say “no thanks, we are rolling with the former 3 star recruit who’s played 5.5 minutes over his career” glad you aren’t our coach.

    4. BBNDan7

      This is like saying we should’ve turned down Anthony Davis to let Eloy Vargas play more lmao

    5. justgettingstartedbro

      I agree with parts of what you’re saying. BBDAn7 I don’t really think it has anything to do not recruiting the best you can get over a lesser player. However there has to be some balance and as of now this team doesn’t have it. It’s either we’re gonna go be an NBA factory and only judge by those results or be a team built on the ultimate goal of building a team to win Championships. I’m happy either way because I’m not losing sleep over any of this. But my only criticism is that Cal keeps the 3 stars on a short leash when it comes to making errors on the court. Just sayin…

    6. unbridled

      This is just a dumb blog. The answer is to get as many ultra elite guys as you can and let the chips fall where they may. This year is yet to be determined and cals ul tenure is phenomenal. Quit inventing problems that don’t exist. No need to change. Stay the course. Quit being stupid people. Please!

  2. Go_Wildcats_Go

    Good article and some very solid points Aaron!

    1. Luether

      Agree. Another excellent, well thought out post, Aaron…

  3. BBNCAYUTS

    It seems to me that the answer would be to recruit 3-4 year players from the state of Kentucky. Less likely to transfer and would have more pride in the program. I’m sure there are some half way decent players in the state to fill that roll.

    1. DrSayre

      That’s kinda what I am thinking too. Willis and Hawkins might have been more likely to transfer if they were not from Kentucky. Instead they both stuck around and ended up having a big senior season. But I think the problem is, Kentucky doesnt have the quality of players each year.

    2. catsarerunnin

      Just curious as to why you consider instate players to be that talented? I love seeing Ky born players becoming Wildcats but Ky high school basketball isn’t all that great compared to other states. I want players to stay longer because this program needs quality vets but I still want them to be the best of the best.

    3. Kernel Sanders

      Taveion Hollingsworth, last year’s Mr. Basketball out of Lexington’s PL Dunbar is playing over 30 minutes per game at WKU, averages 14 points, and shoots over 45% from 3 point line. If I remember correctly, he was hoping for a UK offer. I’d take him right now over some of our current freshmen who I won’t name. Would Hollingsworth be playing as much at UK or replacing our current 5 star recruit Some? Well no, but I think he could have been like Willis and Dom. Too bad he never got a sniff of an offer.

    4. JTHinton

      He’s also their captain as a freshman and REALLY wanted to go here. Alas, Rick Stansbury will likely get that WKU squad in the tourney and they’re capable of beating a top team if things go right.

    5. sj

      Our lead recruiter isn’t getting it done, I’m not saying joel Justus doesn’t put in the work, but ever since coach O left, we’ve been missing on some high level talent.

    6. jahanc2uky

      Cal is not the best recruiter in my opinion, because he doesnt think long term. He shoulda been recruiting 1 UK kid per class in his tenure. Guess what, 2 out of 4 UK kids would need a scholarship to come here. Meaning Cal still gets 10 scholarships to hand out to the best available. Cal can be as hard headed as he wants abouy anything else, but not recruiting instate kids is a bad long term strategy.

  4. Kevin C

    “Kentucky’s problem isn’t its freshmen, it’s finding three and four-year players to stick with the program”

    Well, no sh*t Sherlock. If a player stays beyond their freshman year, then they’re obviously not a “freshman” any longer. The problem is that too many kids have family/friends/agents in their ears telling them how great they are, as well as seeing mock drafts that project them much higher than they probably should. It’s not Cal’s fault when a player leaves after 1 year, and they clearly weren’t ready. Hell, he’s recruited several kids that publicly said they wanted to get their degree “because they promised their mom/grandma they would”, only to enter the draft after 1 year.

    Brandon Knight is the perfect example of this, as he was a straight-A student in HS, and supposedly had a near-4.0 at UK, and said all along that he “wasn’t planning on being 1-and-done”. But his strong play in the last 2 weeks of that season suddenly had people yammering in his ear about how great he was, and boom…he’s gone. He struggled in his first couple years, got bounced around a couple times, got injured, and likely will never be a starter again in the NBA. BUT, he’s made millions already (current salary est. at 12 million/yr), and that’s more than he could say if he stayed 4 yrs, and was just now in his rookie year. Hell, if he’d stayed 4 years, then still got hurt last year, he likely would have been screwed.

    The fact is, Cal is constantly having to adjust to “the game”, just like many other top coaches. And this FBI investigation REALLY changes things (hopefully for the better, eventually). I’m sure that as long as the Feds are snooping around, Cal is no longer going balls-out for any top recruit that has an “entourage” telling them them how great they are, how much $$ they’re worth, etc. I think most of us can agree that Duke is either doing something shady/illegal, or someone not “directly connected” to them is, to get all of the top-5 guys they’ve gotten in the last 2 years. Whatever it is, Cal isn’t worried about trying to catch up, or copy them. He truly wants kids to come to UK because THEY want to, and supports them any way he can…including encouraging them to come back later and get their degrees. Coach K tells kids “Come to Duke, and you’ll be set for life”. Gee, that doesn’t sound shady AT ALL. I guess guys like Nolan Smith, Trajan Langdon, William Avery and Kyle Singler didn’t get that memo.

    1. callitlikeiseeit

      Or maybe they see that K has 5 titles and they want the best chance to win a title during their one year. Is proven you can go anywhere, {not just to Cal} and be the top pick and do well. Maybe they also see how lost our guys look on the court while the dUKe Freshman at least seem to play like a team and have a clue on both ends of the court. The team USA coaching last year also exposed Cal.

    2. J-Dub421

      Call, Duke just lost to a St. John’s team that is 11-13 this season. Duke also lost in the second round last year with supposedly the best team ever. Take your Coach K love and stuff it.

    3. BigBlueNationDude

      Everyone on here compares us to do Duke. Little brother syndrome and uk is little brother to you people

    4. unbridled

      Callitlikeiseeit…..you have absolutely NO clue what you are talking about. It’s comical! Your last comment is literally a punchline. Hahahahaha

  5. BlueDew

    To the author, we did not get Young and Bamba. So, that was a recruiting failure on coaching staff. Too many KSR people playing the “if n ” game. Heard today on KSR that Cal would have been thought of differently IF they would have went 40-0 and won the NC, but guess what they didn’t. He doesn’t get that credit because he didn’t finish. How many times at the end of the game did Carl Anthony not touch the ball? All KSR does is defend Cal and won’t listen to people that have some knowledge of the game and see unfixable problems with this team. As far as recruiting over, if Cal sat these older players down and explained he is bringing in someone and they would be part of a great team. In my opinion Cal doesn’t do this. He wants every minute for these prima donnas.

    1. justaguyinthebackrow

      Who are these people that “have some knowledge of the game”? (Hint: it’s not you.) But what do you expect? Do you think KSR should “listen” to you and suddenly things will turn around? Or perhaps they’ll get you a line directly to Cal so you can let him know what’s wrong? Some people are so clueless.

  6. jrdh13

    I think easy answer is kentucky boys. Theyll stay because close to family and its a dream. Take the beetle kid for west virgina as an example. Not only couldve helped this year a little but i believe he would’vestuck around playing for his dream school.

  7. BallDontLie

    What a strange dichotomy, a recruiting style that has lead to so much success yet also can be blamed for some of the shortcomings of the program in Cal’s tenure.

    1. justgettingstartedbro

      The best explanation yet

    2. unbridled

      It’s not a dichotomy and there are no short comings….except for fans who have no idea what they are talking about.

  8. Jiminy Crickets

    The truth is he does occasionally recruit 3-4 year guys, but he rarely gets them, because they dont want to set the bench. Or if he does and there’s even a chance of getting drafted they bolt. How many times have we heard a guy should leave because the guy coming in may push him to the bench. On KSR the other day Matt said Hami may feel the need to leave because we will so guard heavy Hami may not play as much. Sooooo…..If your not good enough to beat out a freshman coming in, you think you can make it in the NBA? This is the issue. Matthews is perfect example, he was recruited as the #2 SG in class, but late HS season injury caused him to drop to 4-star, he got here didnt play that much, and realized he had better chance of playing 4 years actually playing somewhere than he did here. Kyle Wiltjer same thing. He would have rather transferred and set out a year than to redshirt here, but what happen when Wiltjer left (same as Matthews)? Wiltjer was in national player of year contention, and got drafted, something that would never have happen here, because he would have been coming off the bench.

    1. Jiminy Crickets

      Derrick Willis is another example. He was pretty much relegated to bench, until after 2015 when 7 guys left for NBA, and two graduated, with only a recruiting class of 3 major recruits. This left one season for him to play large minutes. He quickly became a key member and at least got a shot at NBA team during summer league, and even he thought about transferring or quitting basketball all together. Tai Wynard is that position now, SKJ was in it last year.

    2. J-Dub421

      #1 Players sit the bench, they do not set.
      #2 Wiltjer did not get drafted and is currently playing in Greece.
      #3 It’s Derek Willis, after four years you should know how to spell his name. Derek didn’t play significant minutes until his senior year because Derek (by his own admission) did not put in the work. That’s on Derek.

    3. 4everUKblue

      Crickets you are among the most ignorant posters on this site and you just keep getting schooled by J-Dub. Educate yourself and stop embarrassing yourself.

  9. Skeps

    I have no problem with recruiting the best. But,sometimes Rivals or Scouts rankings mean nothing. Stop recruiting the best athletes, and evaluate their whole game to especially include shooting. After this season I hope we can all see how important shooting is. And no, I don’t mean a bunch of spot up shooters.

    1. unbridled

      I’m pretty sure the guys that make the big bucks do exactly what you are suggesting. Thanks though.

    2. Skeps

      Thanks for backing me up. Glad you’re on my side and all the guys that make “big bucks” have finally listened to me. I guess they’re right, coaches do read this comment section.

    3. unbridled

      Please reread your comment and tell me the coaches do not do exactly what you suggested. It’s just silly to think they don’t.

    4. Skeps

      Archie Goodwin first one comes to mind. 15th on ESPN top 100. Everyone was excited because he was a slasher, but the scoop on him was he couldn’t shoot and that was definitely true.

    5. 4everUKblue

      If coaches do read this section, you, Crickets, Jim Tom Bob and Callit to name a few, are providing them with some great comedy.

    6. Skeps

      4ever comes here to read what Calipari tells him to think. His main goal in life is to be Cal’s cuddle buddy.

  10. BigBogee

    Just th8nk what kinda shape UK will be in when Cal hangs it up! The next coach will have to recruit the 3 and 4 year players mixed with 2 one and dones. After 2 seasons, it will balance out having the best of both worlds.

  11. Aar

    I think the solution is to prioritize seniority and consistent effort over outright talent when it come to both starts and minutes at the beginning of the season. Also start the season with a deep rotation. As the season progresses, talented freshmen will get in shape, learn the effort required at the college level and to sub themselves. As that happens, playing time and starts will naturally go to the players with the best results and the rotation can be shortened for a tournament run.

    Who am I to know this. Obviously, Cal knows best. He also knows that prospects and their advisors/parents watch whether a coach starts Freshmen at the beginning of the season. He also knows that observation promises more than any words he can say on the recruiting trail.

    1. unbridled

      I understand what you are saying but I would think that you would want to garner as much experience with young players, as quickly as you can.

  12. kylebsanders7

    No doubt, Humphries, Briscoe, or even Matthews would be nice additions to this team. What happens too sometimes, is these top recruits exceed expectations. Who thought Bledsoe,Booker, or Young would be one and done when the season started? I want everybody to be able to leave after one season, because that means we had an incredible year. Right now, I’m not sold on anybody being one and done. I know people say Knox, SGA, and even still Diallo, but I don’t see it right now. I hope that changes. They all need consistency and to just keep getting better. They have flashes of what they could be, and that goes 8 guys deep. I hope they all are good enough to go. If not, we should have some of that veteran leadership next year.

  13. AmazzzingLarry

    Really though, UK would be awesome with Lee and Matthews and Humphries right now.

  14. ibescootch

    While our problems this year MIGHT be fixed by a few Juniors/Seniors, I don’t think that’s really the answer. At least with this group. Would we be complaining and pointing fingers if we had a dead-eye shooter in the lineup like Baker apparently is? I doubt it.

    So if Baker (a Freshman) was knocking down threes and relieving some on the pressure on guards driving to the basket, we’d have probably 2-3 more wins. Years that we’ve done well, we’ve had an upperclassman that did one thing really well- Miller was a steady shooter, Patterson was a big body inside, Polsen was a consistent, mature point guard, etc. None of them were the star of the team, but I’d argue what they were good at, a Freshman could be just as good at. You don’t just win and stay calm in big games because you’re a Junior or Senior, it’s because you are confident in your abilities and your team. Would you rather have a Riley LaChance missing ALL of his free throws at the end of the game both times, or a Quade Green calmly flying up court and to the basket for the win? I’d rather have talent over age/experience every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

  15. BluKudzu

    We look like a bunch of Freshmen playing in college.
    Can’t imagine any of these kids getting any meaningful minutes in the league. With just two rounds to select players that will provide an immediate impact, I do not believe there are too many teams that have the luxury of drafting for the G league or for a project type player.
    I just do not see a player that can consistently get to the rack to score or get a rebound on this team, against college players. I doubt their skill set will change in the NBA, against far better competition.

  16. UKfanman01

    Cal needs somebody like Teague to come back and tell them not everyone is ready for the pros. He was the too point guard at the time and was a total bust in the league. I’m ok with player first mentality. I’m ok with getting superstars. But Cal needs to tell em not everyone is ready. Get a guy like Chapman to come in and tell them where they lack.

    1. J-Dub421

      Do you really think Cal didn’t tell Teague he wasn’t ready? Teague wanted to go anyway. Cal can’t lock these kids up and make them stay.

  17. Alleykat16

    Cal coaches to hard for these kids to hang around that’s one problem one thing I have noticed this year not hearing to much about the players hanging out at Cals house like the past years and the brownie stories so much with this group