When momentum shifted away from Kentucky in Matt Haarms’ recruitment and the 7-foot-3 graduate transfer out of Purdue ultimately decided to commit to Mark Pope and the BYU program, serious questions about how John Calipari and the UK coaching staff would close out the 2020-21 roster were raised.
Despite boasting the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, along with the addition of two incoming transfers in Creighton guard Davion Mintz and Rhode Island forward Jacob Toppin, potential options are extremely limited in the frontcourt in the graduate transfer market and in the class of 2020. With a swing-and-miss on Haarms, a player the staff contacted immediately after he entered the transfer portal on April 6, there was a sense of panic throughout the fanbase that the staff wouldn’t be able to close out the roster with an immediate-impact big, thus limiting the team’s potential after losing Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, and Nate Sestina this offseason.
But what if I told you that missing on Haarms may have actually been more beneficial for the team in the long run?
No, missing out on a player who started 41 games in the Big 10 and averaged 16.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks per 40 minutes is not a “good” thing, and the team certainly needs a starting-quality center, but Haarms was never going to be the world-beater in Lexington some made him out to be.
In fact, if you ask those close to the Purdue basketball program, the 7-foot-3 center was a poor fit at Kentucky and was always better off at a low-profile school like BYU.
In terms of on-court production, Haarms had a “tough year” at Purdue, dealing with numerous injuries and falling short of lofty expectations.
“It was a tough year for him at Purdue, he was a really productive player his whole career, fans loved him,” Brian Neubert of GoldAndBlack.com – the Purdue affiliate on the Rivals network – told KSR. “He was really embedded in the community. But last year was really tough. Obviously Purdue was coming off an Elite Eight year, there were a lot of expectations on him and the team’s other veterans that came back. It was a Big 10 Championship team. He didn’t have the year he wanted to have, he didn’t have the year Purdue needed him to have. Haarms was injured quite a bit, he got a concussion on the first day of practice, got a concussion again in the second Big 10 game at the end of December, hurt his hip at Michigan, all that stuff kind of snowballed on him. Really kind of affected the way he played.”
Part of the reason Haarms fell short of expectations as a junior? Purdue center Trevion Williams, who beat out the 7-foot-3 center for playing time as the year progressed and is now seen as the team’s anchor of the frontcourt.
The fact of the matter is that he was unlikely to play more than 20 minutes per game and would need to look elsewhere if he wished to have a more prominent role as a senior.
“Trevion Williams, he can be one of the best big men in college basketball. He ended the year as Purdue’s starting center,” Neubert told KSR. “It just seemed like those two never found chemistry, the spacing was bad, it just didn’t work. … Haarms, in the last 19 games of the year or something like that, played 20 minutes or more once. Had he come back to Purdue, he realized he was not going to start and he wasn’t going to play more than 20 minutes a game. Can’t blame the kid at all for looking for something more. He is a guy that is really talented, really skilled, has a lot going for him as a basketball player. He can play basketball for a really long time, so you can’t really fault him at all for looking to play a more prominent role somewhere else.”
When the recruiting process began, the potential options came as a bit of a surprise for those who covered him and followed his career at Purdue closely. Haarms’ comment to Corey Evans of Rivals.com that he wanted to find a place where he could “showcase an NBA-ready skillset” and “transition to the pro level” was extremely uncharacteristic of the low-profile center native of Amsterdam.
“He never really talked or indicated that he was looking at himself as a long-term professional, even though everyone looked at him as someone who could play basketball for a very long time,” Neubert said. “He has that potential, but he didn’t ever really carry himself that way. So it was a little bit surprising when he transferred and said he wanted to display his NBA-ready skillset. Which is the most un-‘Matt Haarms’-like thing I think I’ve ever heard him say.”
At the end of the day, there was a consensus that somewhere “more off the radar” was a better fit, even when Kentucky came calling and momentum picked up between both parties.
“To be 100% honest with you, I thought he would have been best suited going to BYU or Boston College, somewhere where he’s more off the radar. I don’t know if he’s a big fishbowl guy,” Neubert told KSR. “He’s not necessarily that ultimate competitor that you might think he is just by seeing how demonstrative he is on the floor. Great kid, great human being, unbelievable person, but I don’t know if he’s that guy that will step up and win you a college basketball game.
“That’s a little bit of what Purdue needed this season that they didn’t have. I just think putting him around domineering personalities and guys who are NBA dudes, I think that’s a certain personality type that, if he’s compatible with that, I don’t know. I think there was an adjustment period for him playing with Carsen Edwards, who was that sort of killer at Purdue. I’m assuming everybody at Kentucky is that way because they’re all NBA guys in waiting for the most part. I just don’t know if the stage Kentucky [was] going to put him on is necessarily something he would be comfortable with from day one.
“Throw in the fact that I know how demanding John Calipari is of his players, that [would have been] really interesting. Not that Matt Painter isn’t demanding – he is as demanding as any coach out there – but he’s also really, really cool with his players. I’m sure Calipari is, as well, but when you’re bringing in a guy for one year, you don’t get that natural relationship or that investment with him. Kentucky is not the place for someone who is a step behind everybody else.”
Aside from on-court abilities and personality fit, Neubert was uncertain that Haarms would have connected well in the locker room as a veteran leader with Kentucky’s young talent in the same way Reid Travis and Nate Sestina did the past two years in Lexington.
In fact, Purdue needed a strong veteran presence this past year and were unable to get that from anyone on the roster, Haarms included.
“That’s actually what Purdue needed desperately this season, and they didn’t get it. And I don’t think anyone [on the team] was exempt from blame on that,” Neubert told KSR. “I don’t think Purdue got leadership this year from the guys it needed leadership from, and I think Haaarms was a part of that. Now, he is a conscientious person and he thinks that way, whether or not you can always exercise it necessarily as your surroundings change. Whether you can lead when you’re not playing as well as you want to be playing, sometimes coaches talk about the difficulty in that. But Purdue was missing something this season, and what it needed was its older, experienced players who had played in a lot of NCAA Tournament games to play like it. To be honest with you, that didn’t happen.”
With the reclassification process becoming rather cut-and-dry for interested prospects this year, along with other intriguing pieces remaining in the 2020 class and on the grad transfer market, the options are open for John Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff to close out the roster not only with strong talent, but a better fit.