It was only about three months ago that any Kentucky basketball fan taking a peek ahead to the following season had plenty to be excited about.
The Cats had six high-level prospects in a No. 1-ranked recruiting class. And a look at UK’s roster suggested that such former five-star players as Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, Kahlil Whitney and Johnny Juzang could be back for another season in Lexington.
With other highly touted returnees like Keion Brooks and Dontaie Allen in the mix, it had the makings of one of John Calipari’s most formidable lineups ever.
How things have changed.
The Cats still have that star-studded No. 1 class, but Whitney left the team in January, Juzang announced a transfer in late March, Quickley appears to be leaning toward staying in the NBA Draft, and there’s a good chance Montgomery will do the same.
Assuming Nick Richards joins teammates Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans in turning pro — a fair assumption — and everyone except for Brooks and Allen are gone, that would leave Calipari with eight scholarship players. The UK coach rarely hits his maximum allotment of 13 scholarships, but he often laments situations where he doesn’t have a minimum of 10 for scrimmage situations.
With the pool of available high school prospects pretty much dried up, Kentucky will have to turn to the transfer route amid a wildly uncertain recruiting landscape.
It’s not going to be easy, especially for the Wildcats.
Last week, the NCAA announced that its ban on in-person recruiting had been extended through at least May 31 because of the coronavirus pandemic. That means prospective recruits and players looking to transfer will not be able to visit college campuses during that period, and college coaches will not be permitted to do in-home visits — or have any other kind of in-person contact — until that ban is lifted.
That shouldn’t affect the highest-profile class of 2020 recruits that remain uncommitted. Those players had been taking campus visits over the course of their recruitments and should have a pretty good feel for their college options. Of those players — the potential difference-makers for the 2020-21 college season — only five-star forward Greg Brown is considering Kentucky, and he’s not expected to end up at UK anyway. Hometown Texas is the consensus favorite.
For the players that aren’t well familiar with the schools recruiting them — and most transfers fall into this category — the circumstances are going to be difficult.
“The landscape this year is completely different,” 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “The transfer recruitments are basically going to have to be done over the phone. And coaching staffs are going to have to get creative in terms of how they show kids their campus and their facilities. … A lot of the prospects are going to have to make decisions without making any visits.”
Daniels said he has spoken to college coaches who have their video departments working on “virtual tours” of their respective campuses. Some are doing these presentations via live video options such as FaceTime, while others are putting together packages that show more in-depth looks at their campus and facilities.
The Herald-Leader was told over the weekend that UK is one of the programs working on such a project to show prospective recruits.
Daniels noted that much of the recruiting process is done over the phone anyway but acknowledged that the in-person component of those relationships is a major factor in final decisions, especially in the case of abbreviated recruitments (like transfers). “The visits are oftentimes what set things over the top,” he said.
Those in-person encounters give both the player and the coaching staff a better feel for each other. It’s a dynamic that works both ways and sometimes leads to some truths that aren’t decipherable from a long distance.
Despite the current restrictions on recruiting, many of the top transfer targets are making quick decisions.
Every day, another coveted player announces his new college destination, despite — in many cases — never having visited that campus. The uncertainty of the basketball calendar hasn’t stopped players from making snap judgments, and, as a result of the circumstances, it’s unlikely that all of these newly formed relationships are going to turn out rosy.
“It’s very easy to tell a prospect what they want to hear over the phone. And these kids, in return, decide sight unseen,” Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader. “I think what it’s going to lead to is a lot of unhappy campers. Both ways. It could be the prospect or the coaching staff saying, ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’
“Even from the prospect’s side, you can always fool a coaching staff, but I think bringing a kid on campus for 24, 48 hours, get to know him and his habits — and also his family and his friends, or whoever it might be around him — that gives you a better barometer of who that kid is that you’re getting on a daily basis. Compared to just a phone call for 20 minutes. I think you’re going to see even greater transfer numbers down the road because of this.”
This quick-decision phenomenon is hurting Kentucky in a couple of different ways.
Most obviously, the Cats are missing out on some players they might’ve otherwise targeted as they wait on their own current players’ stay-or-go decisions, especially those of Quickley and Montgomery, who would both likely need to be replaced with similarly positioned players — a capable ball-handling guard and an instant-impact frontcourt threat — should they leave.
This limited and truncated process is also keeping UK from recruiting in its normal fashion.
The Kentucky program — and Calipari, specifically — is uniquely meticulous in its approach to player evaluation and relationship-building. Calipari likes to meet with prospective recruits and their inner circles in person — almost always multiple times in different settings — before extending scholarship offers.
Appearing on UK’s daily “BBN Live” web series last week, Wildcats assistant coach Joel Justus talked about that process.
“I think it’s just like any other relationship that any of us have. Whether it’s someone you meet at work, whether it’s someone you meet through someone else — it’s based on trust,” he said. “It’s based on a genuine feeling that you have about the person. There is talent, but there has to be something there you feel they can be successful at Kentucky, they can be successful playing for Coach Calipari, they can be successful doing what we do, and that’s bringing together a group of young people so everyone can be successful. You’re obviously checking in on them in their background, in their character. You’re checking in on their passion for basketball.
“Coach Cal likes to talk about having a curious mind. It’s something that — we want guys that want to be coached. We want guys that want to learn. We want guys that want to work.”
If there’s a need to make a couple of last-minute additions to next season’s roster, it’s going to be awfully difficult for UK’s coaches to glean all of that from a few phone calls and video sessions.
Yet another problem Kentucky’s coaches will have as they navigate the current transfer landscape is a relative lack of talent.
Immediately after the season was canceled last month, it appeared that Quickley was a 50/50 bet to return to UK, while Montgomery was expected to return. And the Cats weren’t necessarily expecting that Juzang would transfer. Kentucky almost certainly won’t find anyone of Quickley’s abilities in this year’s transfer portal, and it will be difficult to identify many players with as much potential as Montgomery or Juzang.
The various lists of “top transfers” that outlets like Rivals.com and 247Sports have been putting out in recent weeks aren’t exactly stacked with the type of talent it takes to play a large role at a place like Kentucky.
“Even the guys like Jordan Bruner and Seth Towns and these guys — they’re great, but are they capable of stepping into Rupp Arena and having that ‘X’ on their back every night? And having that chemistry and cooperation (with teammates)?” Evans said.
Towns was one of the top available transfers out there until he committed to Ohio State. Bruner — a 6-foot-9 forward from Yale — has already narrowed his choices to Alabama, Baylor and Maryland. Those are two examples of talented transfers, but also two examples of guys moving fast through this process as UK is forced to wait.
And if Montgomery leaves, the impact frontcourt options appear especially thin. There are certainly no players like Reid Travis or Kerry Blackshear Jr. out there. In 247Sports’ most recent rankings of the top 20 transfers, Bruner is the only uncommitted one that could be considered a frontcourt player.
“It is pretty thin. It seems like there are a lot more options on the perimeter than post players, for sure,” Daniels said.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Kentucky. When the subject is recruiting, the Cats will always have certain advantages.
Both Daniels and Evans pointed out that UK’s coaches should have a better chance to sell recruits on their program, sight unseen, than just about any other school in the country. Kentucky is still Kentucky, after all, and a player — especially a graduate transfer — looking to embrace the challenge of playing at the highest level probably already has a pretty good idea of what UK is all about. When Calipari or one of his assistant coaches call, players listen.
“They always have that advantage,” Daniels said. “The Kentuckys, the Dukes, the Kansases — they have an advantage heading into, theoretically, just about every recruitment.”
Daniels is also expecting a “second wave” of names to hit the NCAA transfer portal — which already features more than 500 players — later this spring. It’s possible that more talented options will emerge, and there could even be a scenario that a star player not currently in the portal sees someone like Quickley or Montgomery leave and decides to see if UK would be interested.
Evans said he’s hearing buzz in college coaching circles that the current landscape could lead to more reclassifications from 2021 to 2020. UK targets like Jonathan Kuminga, Moussa Cisse and Moussa Diabate were already being mentioned as reclassification candidates — though the Cats are not seen as the favorite in any of those recruitments — but perhaps even more instant-impact high school prospects could be added to the current recruiting pool.
The rationale for that is that relaxed academic requirements for college admission — due to the disruption of high schools as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — could move more high school juniors that can meet the standards to make an early college jump.
Last week, the University of California announced that it would ease admission requirements — including the elimination of SAT scores and letter grades for some required courses — for students wishing to enroll in the fall. The way the NCAA’s admission requirements are structured, many recruits have already completed or are close to completing the core courses needed for college eligibility by the end of their junior year of high school. In some of those cases, an online summer class or two could fulfill the requirement.
“It sounds like it’s going to be even easier to have those kids reclassify, with academics in mind, just because there might be greater leeway with the test scores,” Evans said. “If that actually does take place, that might push even more kids to make that jump to 2020 if they feel like they have compatible suitors for them.”
Both potential scenarios — the “second wave” of transfers and more reclassifications — could include pitfalls for Kentucky.
Later this spring, the NCAA is expected to pass its proposed “free transfer” rule, which would allow players who meet certain (easily achievable) requirements a one-time transfer without having to sit out a season. That could certainly add some intriguing possibilities to the transfer portal, but Calipari has been critical of the rule and the potential impact it could have on mid-major programs whose top players bail for bigger schools after a season of individual success. “All the other teams (would) be farm teams for us,” Calipari said recently. Would he back off that criticism so quickly just because a good fit for UK’s 2020-21 roster emerged?
And the flip side of more reclassifications would obviously be an even younger UK team. If Quickley and Montgomery leave, Brooks would be the only returning scholarship player with any college game experience. A player moving up from 2021 to 2020 would add more inexperience.
It seems that — more than just talent — next season’s Kentucky team would need some seasoning to go along with it.
“They’re in a difficult situation, where that guy that they add this offseason — and they’re going to have to add someone — that guy better be ready to not just be able to come in and pitch in, but come in and be a star in his role,” Evans said. “And that role might be pretty large.”
Calipari’s offseasons at Kentucky have always been filled with uncertainty. Almost always, he finds a way to make it work and puts together a roster capable of contending for a trip to the Final Four.
Even so, this could be his biggest challenge yet, and UK’s standards are likely to remain the same, even if the circumstances are so much different
“In my opinion, it’s no different than high school recruiting for Kentucky — they’re looking for the best of the best,” Daniels said. “If they’re going to take a transfer, it has to be somebody that fits a need and is one of the best available players at that need.
“Obviously, when you’re a blue-blood and you’re searching for a player of need, they’re going to have to be good enough to see the floor. So, yeah, there are some difficulties.”
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