One of the biggest recruiting head-scratchers of the summer involved John Calipari, a top-five recruit in the 2018 class and an omission from a USA Basketball trip to Egypt.
Last June, the UK head coach oversaw USA Basketball’s U19 training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. For several days, he observed and then presided over the camp proceedings, and the 12 players ultimately chosen to represent the United States at the FIBA U19 World Cup traveled with Calipari to Egypt for the tournament.
Bol Bol, a major UK recruiting target at the time, was not one of the players chosen.
The 7-foot-3 son of former NBA star Manute Bol was in good spirits early in the camp and played well, wowing many of those in attendance, including Calipari.
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The UK coach said then that he had seen Bol play a year earlier, cringing at the rawness in his game.
“Then I saw him a month ago,” Calipari said, “And I’m like, ‘Is that him?!’”
He then marveled further at his progress on the court.
“Each month you see this kid, he’s just getting better and better.”
Bol spoke excitedly that same day about the opportunity to travel to Egypt and play for Team USA. He was also excited about being coached by Calipari.
A few days later, he didn’t make the cut.
That development apparently led to some hard feelings between Bol and UK’s camp. The Cats appeared to be favorites in his recruitment up until that point. By the end of the summer, recruiting analysts pegged Arizona and Southern Cal as the new frontrunners for Bol, and Kentucky was little more than an afterthought among the national experts.
Fast forward a few weeks, and things have changed once again.
Arizona and USC both had assistant coaches arrested and charged with crimes last week as a result of the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball.
The Herald-Leader was told Wednesday afternoon that those schools were now effectively out of the running for Bol, who lives in the Los Angeles area.
Bol’s mother, Ajok Kuag, confirmed as much to SEC Country on Wednesday night, saying that the family didn’t “want any trouble” and were unlikely to take previously scheduled official visits to those two schools.
That would leave UK, Oregon and UCLA as the three programs left on Bol’s list, and the Herald-Leader was also told earlier Wednesday that the recruitment had essentially become a two-team race between the Wildcats and the Ducks.
Sounds like good news for UK, but there’s a catch.
Bol’s mother also told SEC Country that she and her son were still “upset” with Calipari over the USA Basketball snub, adding that the UK coach still had not explained the omission to her Bol.
“We want to know what happened,” she said.
A couple of weeks ago, the Herald-Leader asked USA Basketball for an explanation on exactly how players are chosen for the Team USA squads. It’s not as simple as the head coach, in this case Calipari, simply naming the 12 guys he wants most.
First, there’s a selection committee, and Calipari was not technically a member.
The committee for this year’s U19 squad consisted of Purdue Coach Matt Painter (the committee chair), former Duke star Shane Battier (the athlete representative), Virginia Coach Tony Bennett, Providence Coach Ed Cooley and Arizona Coach Sean Miller, and all five of those committee members were there in Colorado Springs to observe training camp.
That doesn’t mean that Calipari’s opinion — as well as that of U19 assistant coaches Tad Boyle and Danny Manning — went unheeded.
A USA Basketball spokesman told the Herald-Leader that the coaching staff’s input is valued in the selection process and there is “plenty of opportunity for the coach’s opinion to be heard, and he is allowed to sit in on the committee meetings.”
More often than not, the spokesman said, the committee puts “great emphasis” on the coach’s input.
The committee members typically rate players by position — team coaches and other on-court instructors usually rate players, too — and then discussions are held after each training session and a new depth chart of the top players is created.
The selection of finalists — Bol did make it past the first cut — and the final 12-player team is usually done through a discussion by the committee. If needed, a vote can be taken, but the members generally come to a unanimous agreement through those discussions, the spokesman said.
Those proceedings are done behind closed doors, so it’s unclear who — if anyone — was in favor of keeping Bol on the final team, and it’s also unclear how involved Calipari was in trying to get him on the squad.
To complicate matters in this specific case, there’s a FIBA regulation that says each team can have only one “naturalized” player.
Bol was born in what is now South Sudan.
Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, who was born in Nigeria, is more than a year older than Bol, has college experience — he averaged 16.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game as a freshman last season — and filled a bigger position of need for the U19 team.
The USA Basketball decision-makers chose Okogie as their one “naturalized” player.
Bol’s mother said Wednesday night that the family was still hoping for an explanation of the USA Basketball selection process from Calipari.
The UK coach will get that opportunity next weekend, when he’s scheduled to host Bol — the No. 3 overall recruit in the class of 2018 — for an official visit coinciding with the school’s Big Blue Madness event.