On Tuesday morning the news that no Kentucky fan wanted, but was ultimately inevitable, officially hit. James Wiseman, the No. 1 high school player in the class of 2019, made his college decision and he is headed to Memphis. While we’ll never know anything official, it seems obvious that Kentucky finished in second place.
Again, this news wasn’t shocking. As has been well-documented, Wiseman played for Penny Hardaway in high school and AAU. He decided to stay in Memphis to play high school basketball even after Hardaway left his school, and Wiseman made his announcement on a day where he will play against fellow Memphis commit D.J. Jeffries. There hasn’t been a single piece of evidence to suggest that Wiseman’s choice was going to be anything other than Memphis for months now.
Inevitably though it is disappointing for Kentucky who – after years of basically getting any player they wanted – have once again lost out on a big, high-profile kid. This one especially stings because, as my buddy TJ Walker has written many times, Kentucky turned up the heat on Wiseman in a way they rarely had before. There was literally nothing else they could have feasibly done. And Wiseman still picked Memphis.
The question now for Kentucky is of course “Why does this keep happening to us? And how do we stop it?” Unfortunately, there really is no easy answer to that question.
Now before we get too far down this rabbit-hole I do think it’s important to mention a couple things.
One, had Memphis not hired Penny Hardaway, Wiseman would be a Kentucky Wildcat right now. I think that’s worth re-visiting here. It’s not like John Calipari and his staff got out-worked by Coach K, Sean Miller or Chris Mack. They were thiiiiiiiiis close to running away with a commitment from the No. 1 recruit in high school basketball. There was only one person and one school that could sway Wiseman from coming to Kentucky, and it just so happened that the one guy (Penny Hardaway) was hired at the exact wrong time by that one school (although the timing made perfect sense on Memphis’ end). Had Memphis been dominating on the court under Tubby Smith last season or had Penny Hardaway not had the No. 1 recruit in the country on his high school team within the city limits, Kentucky would have locked in the No. 1 recruit in the country on Tuesday morning. And none of this would even be a conversation.
I’d also add that even though this is a frustrating day for Kentucky fans, it’s easy to forget that the Wildcats have had their fair share of wins on the recruiting trail of late. I know it doesn’t feel like that at this particular moment, but they have. E.J. Montgomery just chose Kentucky over Duke (and basically everyone) six months ago. Same with Kevin Knox in May 2017. Ashton Hagans, who was regarded as the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2019 re-opened his recruitment and seemingly never really considered anyone other than Kentucky (that includes Memphis by the way, who contacted Hagans shortly after he decommitted from Georgia). Reid Travis could have played anywhere in the country after he withdrew from the NBA Draft. He chose Kentucky.
So, forgive me for throwing out a little perspective here. But at the end of the day, I also understand the frustration from Kentucky fans who have watched one too many kids that UK really wanted pick different schools. The list is becoming increasingly longer, as you can add Wiseman in with names like Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Marvin Bagley, Bol Bol, you name it. Again, Wiseman is a bit different because of the fact that Memphis hired his high school coach. But it doesn’t make today any easier.
Here is the problem though when evaluating both the Wiseman situation and the other recruiting misses by Kentucky in recent years: I am not positive there is a solution. The recruiting game has changed over the last several years, with more schools willing to recruit one-and-done kids. And as the pool of schools willing to go after the truly 10-15 elite players a year has expanded, the opportunity to sign them as decreased for everyone. And right now it’s hurting Kentucky the most.
Think about it.
When John Calipari got to Kentucky in 2010, he really was the only guy selling the one-year path to the pros, the promise that if you came to Kentucky for one year, he and his staff would do everything they could to get you to the next level as fast as possible. In the subsequent years other schools like Duke, Kansas, UCLA and Arizona began dabbling on the one-and-done market, mixing the occasional star freshman (Andrew Wiggins, Stanley Johnson etc.) with three and four-year players. Even when Duke jumped two feet in a few years ago and started almost exclusively recruiting one-and-done guys, there were still more than enough guys to go around and Kentucky got more than its fair share. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Jamal Murray, Kevin Knox all come to mind in that category.
But now, fast-forward just a few years and everyone is recruiting one-and-done kids. Understand, Kentucky doesn’t just have to beat out Duke and occasionally Arizona or Kansas for the best kids. But other schools too, places that never would have considered recruiting these kids just a few years ago.
Again, think about it.
Villanova would have never dared recruit a can’t miss, one-and-done guy just two or three years ago – this year they got Bryan Antoine. Florida signed his high school teammate Scottie Lewis. Last year Vanderbilt got Darius Garland North Carolina got Nassir Little. This year, the Tar Heels are the leaders for Cole Anthony… and there’s buzz that Notre Dame – NOTRE DAME!!!! – might be gaining ground in Anthony’s recruitment. If Notre Dame is getting into the one-and-done game you know things have gotten crazy.
Want me to keep going? Too bad, I’m going to anyway.
LSU has two potential one-and-dones on their roster this year. Michigan State might be the favorite for Vernon Carey after getting Jaren Jackson last year. Oregon has Bol Bol and Louis King. Indiana has Romeo Langford. Memphis now has James Wiseman.
Point being, just two or three years ago Kentucky was only competing with Duke for the best players, and maybe occasionally Arizona and Kansas. Now they’re recruiting against literally just about everyone.
Which again makes me wonder one simple thing: Has John Calipari “lost” his recruiting touch? I don’t believe so. What I do believe is that the one advantage that he once had no longer exists. And it isn’t just Kentucky either. Remember, Duke was thought to be a lock for Bryan Antoine and he chose Villanova. Another kid named Josiah James was assumed to be a heavy Duke lean. He picked Tennessee instead.
This isn’t about Calipari losing his touch. It’s about the world changing around him.
And that’s kind of also the problem here: There is no easy answer to solve the problem.
I’ve heard some say to change up the coaching staff, but again, no coach bats 1000 in recruiting. Again, Duke lost Bryan Antoine to Villanova. Kansas wanted Romeo Langford and he ended up at Indiana. Hell, Penny Hardaway wanted Ashton Hagans… and he chose Kentucky. It happens to everyone. Sometimes you can do everything right, impress mom and dad, give the perfect pitch… but a kid just chooses somewhere else.
Another solution I’ve heard some suggest is to go harder after transfers. I don’t necessarily disagree, and was just recently talking to a coach who told me he loves recruiting transfers. The recruitment is easier (no “middle man” or “handlers” just the kid, mom and dad) and because if a kid sits out a year it gives him time to develop in a system. The flip side is, how many truly impactful guys are there on the transfer market? If a guy is good enough, in most cases he’ll just go pro rather than sitting out a year. Even if they do elect to transfer, how many make an instant impact wherever they go? As good as Malik Newman was for Kansas a year ago – he went undrafted. Reid Travis might go undrafted this year. And those are probably the two best transfers of the last four or five years.
My only other thought – not that John Calipari wants or needs my advice – is that, if it were me, I would cast a slightly large net in recruiting. Specifically, I’d emphasize guys that really, really want to play at Kentucky even if they aren’t elite.
For example, I was perplexed last year when the staff never seriously went hard after Simi Shittu, who seemingly wanted to be recruited harder by Kentucky. Shittu is currently averaging 15 points and 10 boards a game at Vanderbilt. I’m still not totally sure why Kentucky never got serious on Aiden Igiehon, who is another player that made it obvious that he wanted to be recruited by Kentucky. He is a legit Top 30 or so recruit and a player who I believe will one day be in the NBA, yet the Wildcats never seriously went after him either.
Super random, but let me give you some further context to back this up: I remember Jay Wright once discussing Mikal Bridges, who arrived at Villanova as a 175 lb. freshman, redshirted and became a lottery pick last year after four seasons in the program. Wright once said that he didn’t initially believe that Bridges would contribute at Villanova, but he was sold because Villanova is where Bridges really wanted to go. His quote (and I’m loosely paraphrasing because I spent a half hour looking for the right quote and couldn’t find it) was something to the effect of “I’m not sure I totally believed in him when we were recruiting him. But it’s a lot easier to take a chance on a kid when you know that this is the only place he wants to be.” it feels like Calipari could have taken that approach on Igiehon, but instead he’ll be at Louisville instead.
Anyway, I’m getting long-winded here, and again, it’s not like this is the beginning of the end or anything for Kentucky in recruiting. They will almost certainly finish in the Top 2 when recruiting is all said and done, and ultimately something weird will happen and a good player will land on their doorstep. Maybe a coach will be fired and a kid become available. Maybe someone reclassifies like Ashton Hagans did last year (and ironically, like a kid named Anthony Edwards did on Tuesday). Maybe a better-than-expected transfer becomes available.
The one thing that seems certain: The days of simply mopping up on the recruiting trail and getting the four or five best players might be over.
And there’s no one to blame. The game has simply changed in recruiting.