When a handful of players transfer or head to the NBA Draft annually that makes every recruiting class important. I thought long and hard about the title of this column before publishing. I don’t want to be hyperbolic. I don’t want to be too hot takey.
With that in mind I have no doubt that the 2019 recruiting class will be John Calipari’s most important during his time at Kentucky.
We’ve been spoiled since Calipari took over the program in 2009. We have the luxury of contemplating UK’s road to the Final Four every season where before Calipari the most challenging task for UK fans was trying to accurately name the half dozen walk-ons on the team.
Things have been mostly great for the Big Blue Nation, but even during Calipari’s reign not every season has the Cats as a serious title contender. Maybe you’ve missed it, but Calipari (like almost every coach) will build up towards season. When the roster meshes together just right those are the years Calipari’s expectation is to win a Final Four.
2010 was the only non-buildup season that had title expectations, but that was a perfect storm of recruiting success and returning players.
2011 nearly resulted in a title but that was setting the groundwork for the 2012 season.
2012 was the perfect storm and resulted in a championship.
2013 geared towards 2014.
2014 didn’t go the way Calipari planned during the regular season, but with championship expectations the Cats fell just one game short.
The blueprint initially for 2015 wasn’t a title season but thanks to several surprise draft decisions that quickly changed, meaning 2016’s expectations would change.
2016 was initially supposed to be a big year for UK, but the Cats lost a few players expected to come back.
2017 was maybe Calipari’s “worst” expected title contending team, but that group cruised through the SEC and was one game short of the Final Four. Odds are if UNC doesn’t hit a last second shot the Cats win the title that year.
2018 was never supposed to be a title contending season and it showed throughout the year.
2019 looks promising and a year or two ago it looked like 2018-2019 would be a year where the Cats should contend. We will need to see who stays and goes to know if that blueprint is realistic.
But if you want to look ahead to 2019-2020 it certainly seems like the pieces should be in place a monster season. 2019 will be John Calipari’s most important recruiting class. Not just because the pieces may be in place, but because when the 2020 class rolls around recruiting may be changed because the one-and-done rule could go away.
The future of UK recruiting is going to change if the one-and-done rule evaporates in 2020. The Cats will have to go after more players that won’t be stars their freshmen season and college basketball will somewhat revert back to how things were before 2006.
If Calipari hangs around for another 5-10 seasons he will surely have other important recruiting classes, but as of today 2019 will be the most crucial.
For a coach that has dominated the recruiting scene the way Calipari has over the years he’s had great and important classes. Any of his four Final Four runs don’t happen without freshmen. The Cats don’t cut down the nets without Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. UK doesn’t start 38-0 without Karl-Anthony Towns and the contributions of other freshmen that year.
But Calipari had somewhat of a pass in those other seasons, especially after 2012. UK was so successful the preview season (sans 2013) that if Calipari had a miss or two on the recruiting trail fans wouldn’t care as much.
With UK not going to a Final Four since 2015 UK fans are getting anxious again. We can debate whether that’s fair or not, but it’s true. If Kentucky misses on the Final Four in 2019 and 2020 fans are going to panic, and I’m sure Calipari is aware.
2019 includes several players that with the right supporting cast could lead a team to a national championship. James Wiseman is special and Vernon Carey could take off, too. It’s not impossible UK lands both.
UK already has commitments from Tyrese Maxey and D.J. Jeffries (consider Ashton Hagans 2018). The Cats are contending for Wiseman, Carey, Keion Brooks, Matthew Hurt, Scottie Lewis and several more five-star targets.
You mix that with the fact the Cats may only lose a few players from the 2018-2019 and the 2019-2020 season could be special. It would be special if that comes to fruition. Of course we didn’t expect the Cats to lose this many players this spring/summer, but more should stay after the 2019 season.
Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro should have sophomore seasons. Jemarl Baker should hang around for a junior season. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Quade Green and Nick Richards return, although that’s tougher to predict.
Circumstances could change for Keldon Johnson and E.J. Montgomery. Heck, maybe things don’t workout for Jarred Vanderbilt (if he returns). Those three are tougher to predict but it seems certain that if Wenyen Gabriel and P.J. Washington return to UK it would be for their last season in Lexington.
But if the Cats have a core of Quickley, Herro, Baker along with possibly Green and Richards, the Cats would be just a few play-makers away from having a monster roster.
UK will have Maxey and a developing Jeffries, but if UK were to add Wiseman and Keion Brooks Kentucky would have a complete and dominant roster. That’s not unreasonable or impossible. As of today it may be probable. What if the Cats were to add a Scottie Lewis and Carey to that class, too? Then you’re talking about a super team.
Of course UK could be talking about a super class in 2018, but three of Calipari’s top targets went to Duke instead of Kentucky. While the Cats have recovered nicely, fans haven’t forgotten about what could have been if the Cats would have just landed one of Cameron Reddish, R.J. Barrett or Zion Williamson.
Surprisingly the star power at the top of 2019 is similar to that of 2018. Calipari has a chance to establish his dominance once again and if he does UK will have a roster similar makeup similar to 2010, 2012, and comparable to 2015.
After 2019 things will likely change. The chances of landing super classes and freshmen players that can dominate in March will decrease. 2019 will be Calipari’s last great chance at combining star freshmen with a nice returning core.
Already having Maxey and Jeffries on board is a great start, but Calipari will need to finish with players like Brooks, Wiseman and Carey. This summer and fall is going to be Calipari’s most important offseason laying the groundwork for the 2019-2020 season.