The recruiting decision the UK basketball program has been waiting for finally came Thursday.
It was bad news for the Wildcats.
Mohamed Bamba — a 7-footer from Harlem, N.Y. — committed to Texas over fellow finalists UK, Duke and Michigan, ending one of the most-watched recruitments in the 2017 cycle. Bamba was ranked by Scout.com as the No. 2 overall prospect in that group, and few, if any, of his classmates got as much face time with UK Coach John Calipari over the past couple of years.
It became clear in recent weeks that Bamba’s recruitment would come down to the Cats and the Longhorns. In the end, Texas won out.
A big reason for that was Shaka Smart, who coached Bamba with the Team USA U18 squad that won a FIBA gold medal last summer.
“Coach Smart may not have been aware of it, but I put him through a weeklong job interview last summer when he coached me on Team USA in Valdivia, Chile,” Bamba wrote for the Players’ Tribune website, where he revealed his college decision. “We instantly formed a bond. Now, the tables have turned, and I’m the one interviewing with him, hoping to show I can play a major role in his team’s success next season. His attention to detail is truly unbelievable — I can’t tell you how many times he picked up on something I mentioned in passing and brought it back full circle several months later.
“I’ve seen firsthand how much he genuinely cares about me and my family and how he’s going to challenge me to be in a state of continuous improvement.”
UK hosted Bamba for an unofficial visit at last fall’s Big Blue Madness and had him back on campus for an official visit in January. Calipari was a regular presence at his high school and was often on the sidelines for his summer games.
Bamba, who plays for a high school in the Philadelphia area, had also formed close relationships with several members of UK’s 2017 recruiting class, most notably point guard Quade Green, his friend and teammate on the Nike circuit and with Team USA.
Those relationships weren’t enough for UK to land the high-upside shot-blocker, but the Cats still have plenty to be excited about for next season.
And Calipari has another player who could fill the role Bamba would’ve played at UK.
Nick Richards — a 7-footer from Queens, N.Y., and a native of Jamaica — signed with Kentucky last fall and might be the most likely candidate to take over the starting center role next season.
Richards — a dominant rebounder and shot-blocker — has been playing basketball for only a few years, since his arrival in the United States, and he’s blossomed from raw prospect to McDonald’s All-American in that time.
247Sports ranks Richards as the No. 14 overall prospect in the 2017 class, and DraftExpress.com already projects him as the 19th overall pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
Former Rutgers coach Mike Rice was Richards’ high school coach at The Patrick School in New Jersey, and he’s witnessed remarkable progress in a relatively short amount of time.
“It’s scary, from when I started two and a half years ago at The Patrick School, to where he is now,” Rice said. “He came into basketball late. So his basketball instincts aren’t there yet, but he’s come on so much. No one moves like him. It’s unfair that a 7-foot kid moves like that.
“I’ve watched a ton of Kentucky stuff, and he can guard one through five about as well as any high school 7-footer has in a long time. He has such a big upside, and Kentucky’s getting a special person.”
UK will also have plenty of other frontcourt options.
Five-star forwards Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and PJ Washington — all McDonald’s All-Americans, and all 6-9 prospects — will be freshmen next season, and the Cats will return 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel and 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard.
Killeya-Jones, specifically, earned praise from UK’s coaches for the way he finished this past season in practice, even though he did not play in the team’s final 19 games.
Bamba was the last high school recruiting target on Calipari’s radar for the class of 2017. UK is still recruiting Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cameron Johnson — a 6-8 wing with no timetable for a college decision — and monitoring the situation with freshman guard Hamidou Diallo, who has until May 24 to decide whether to return to UK or stay in this year’s NBA Draft.