The Derby Festival Classic in Freedom Hall on Friday night will feature, among others, four U of L recruits, one future Kentucky Wildcat and another player who’s visiting UK soon and could eventually join the Cats’ 2017 recruiting class.
Of the 22 players chosen for this year’s Derby Classic, only one is from the Bluegrass State.
That’s Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Taveion Hollingsworth, last year’s Sweet Sixteen MVP and the recipient of this past season’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball honors.
“There’s a lot of talent in Kentucky, so it’s a great honor for me to be picked,” Hollingsworth said. “It feels good, and I hope there will be a lot of fans there.
“Never know if they’re going for me or not, though. There’s a Kentucky player here.”
The 6-foot-2, 165-pound guard laughed after that last part, the mention of UK signee Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is the first Wildcats scholarship recruit to appear in this game since 2013.
U of L’s quartet of Jordan Nwora, Darius Perry, Lance Thomas and Malik Williams will also be on the Freedom Hall court Friday night, as will Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, who has a UK scholarship offer and is planning to visit Lexington next week.
Hollingsworth attracted some recruiting interest from Kentucky — his “dream school” — last year, but the Wildcats wanted him to wait on a scholarship offer, so the Lexington native went with a program that made him a priority.
Western Kentucky Coach Rick Stansbury hosted Hollingsworth for an official visit shortly before the early signing period last fall, and the Toppers landed his commitment a few days later.
WKU has also picked up commitments from McDonald’s All-American Mitchell Robinson — the No. 1 center in the 247Sports rankings — and shooting guard Josh Anderson, another Top 100 national prospect. 247 ranks the Toppers’ class at No. 12 nationally.
“It’s better than what I thought we were going to get when I signed,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s really good. I’m ready for next season, and I’m ready to make an impact.”
He’s also ready to play alongside Robinson, who 247Sports ranks as the No. 4 overall player in the 2017 class. Robinson, arguably the best post defender in the country, told the Herald-Leader during McDonald’s week that he was familiar with Hollingsworth’s game, calling him a great scorer.
Hollingsworth has also been doing some homework on his future teammate.
He watched Robinson play in the nationally televised McDonald’s Game last month and came away impressed. He’s also seen the 7-footer’s highlights on YouTube.
“He’s just a monster in that post, man,” Hollingsworth said. “You don’t want to take it in there.”
On the eve of last fall’s early signing period, U of L Coach Rick Pitino made a bold statement.
“We’re going to announce tomorrow the best recruiting class we’ve had in 16 years,” he said. “We got everybody we wanted.”
Everyone in that class, which 247Sports ranks as the sixth-best group in the country, will be at the Derby Festival Classic on Friday night.
Five-star center Malik Williams — a 7-footer from Fort Wayne, Ind. — leads the way, and he’ll be joined by 6-2 point guard Darius Perry, 6-8 small forward Jordan Nwora and 6-10 power forward Lance Thomas, all four-star prospects.
Those newcomers, coupled with what the Cardinals have coming back from this past season’s team, prompted oddsmakers to make Louisville one of the favorites to win next year’s national championship.
Decision coming soon
When asked about what he’s looking for most in a college basketball team, Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith told reporters this week that a coach’s track record of developing players would be a major priority.
A couple of minutes before that, Smith had this to say about UK Coach John Calipari, who came to his house last week to extend a Wildcats scholarship offer.
“Coach Calipari, his history of developing great basketball players and putting them in the NBA. That’s my dream — to go to the NBA,” Smith said.
“And just to win and go to the NCAA Tournament. … That’s always a dream of mine, to play on the big stage.”
Smith — a 6-foot-5 guard from Edwardsville, Ill. — is planning to visit UK and Ohio State over the next couple of weeks, and he’ll make a college decision shortly after those trips. He’s also considering offers from Michigan State, which he visited last week, Illinois, which he visited multiple times during the season, Missouri, Northwestern, Texas and UCLA.
Rivals.com ranks Smith as the No. 52 recruit in the class of 2017.
Tickets for the Derby Classic are $18 in advance ($20 at the door) and can be purchased online at Ticketmaster.com and by phone through TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000. Tip-off for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m.