UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball recruiting notes on upcoming visits, Simi Shittu and R.J. Barrett buzz

John Calipari is still looking for his first commitment from the recruiting class of 2018.
John Calipari is still looking for his first commitment from the recruiting class of 2018.

One of the few breaks that college basketball coaches get from the recruiting trail comes to an end this weekend, when the “fall recruiting period” begins.

John Calipari and his fellow coaches are allowed to visit with prospective recruits starting Saturday, and the opening week of the fall period is usually one of Calipari’s busiest times of the year.

Last fall, for example, he visited 10 recruits from the class of 2017 during this week on the calendar, popping up in homes and high school gyms from Las Vegas to Connecticut, even meeting with five-star players at such locales as an Alabama chicken wing joint and a Pennsylvania barber shop.

College coaches are allowed to meet with rising seniors — in this case, players from the class of 2018 — at any location. Most visits will be held in the player’s home, but sit-down talks at schools and other places (like a barber shop or restaurant, for instance) are not uncommon.

Coaches are permitted to visit with juniors — players in the 2019 class — only at those players’ high schools.

The next few days should offer a glimpse of who Calipari sees as a priority in the 2018 class, as well as which players might no longer be at the top of the Cats’ list.

Zion Williamson is one of UK’s top recruiting targets. Tracy Glantz

Going into the fall, UK has expressed serious interest in nine players from the 2018 class: R.J. Barrett, who visited Lexington last weekend, Bol Bol, Darius Garland, Quentin Grimes, Keldon Johnson, Romeo Langford, Immanuel Quickley, Simi Shittu and Zion Williamson.

Shittu’s high school coach told the Herald-Leader that Calipari is expected in Vermont on Tuesday morning for an open gym and meeting with the 6-foot-10 power forward. Other than that, there have been no indications of who the UK coach plans to visit in the opening days of the fall period.

It seems likely that Calipari would want more face time with Barrett, the No. 1 recruit in the class, ahead of his upcoming official visits to fellow finalists Duke, Arizona, Oregon and Michigan.

Quickley, the 2018 recruit most likely to ultimately commit to UK, had to cancel a planned official visit to Miami due to Hurricane Irma, so he’ll be free this weekend. Williamson is visiting Clemson on Saturday, but Calipari will surely show up in Spartanburg, S.C., to see him in the next few days.

It will be interesting to see whether the UK coach makes the trip to California for a visit with Bol, a top-5 player in the class who once seemed to favor the Cats but now might be leaning elsewhere. Langford, who lives right across the Ohio River from Louisville, would be a short trip for Calipari, but he, too, seems to be favoring other schools at this point in his recruitment.

As far as the class of 2019 goes, no player from that group has been reported to have a UK scholarship offer yet. Any junior who gets a visit from Calipari in the early stages of the fall recruiting period should be considered a major future priority for the Wildcats.

The fall period stretches through Nov. 5, then comes a four-day “dead period” to coincide with the opening of the early signing period, which begins Nov. 8.

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Best in the class?

Vermont Academy Coach Alex Popp spoke to the Herald-Leader this week about his star player, Simi Shittu, and his interest in Kentucky.

Shittu — a 6-10, 230-pound power forward — is one of only six players in the class of 2018 with a top-10 ranking from all four major recruiting services. The others are R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cameron Reddish, Bol Bol and Romeo Langford.

That’s some elite company. Still …

“I think he’s grossly underrated,” Popp said of Shittu.

The coach mentioned a YouTube video that one of his assistants put together featuring Shittu’s highlights from the Nike Peach Jam finals in July. Popp said the reel sums up Shittu’s “positionless” skill set and all-around game.

“If you can watch that and tell me that there’s a better basketball player in the 2018 class, I want to see it,” he said. “He looks like he’s ready now for the NBA. And this was against a lot of top players.

“I mean, his fluidity is just off the charts in the open court. His dexterity and the way he maneuvers in tight space with his 6-10 frame is just otherworldly. And also the way he handles the basketball. You see his passing, and that’s the part that just makes your jaw drop. He passes the ball like Magic Johnson.”

New name

R.J. Barrett was the high-profile visitor on UK’s campus last week, but the Cats also hosted another recruit from the class of 2018.

Jaxson Hayes — a 6-10, 195-pound power forward from Cincinnati — visited UK, which continues to cast a wide net for post player targets in the 2018 class.

Hayes is ranked by 247Sports as the No. 161 overall player in the senior class. He has reported offers from Texas, Ohio State, Xavier and Butler, among others, and has planned official visits for Texas and Xavier over the next two weeks.

The possibility of several five-star frontcourt players returning to Kentucky after this season could lessen — or completely eliminate — the need to add much in the way of post players from the 2018 class. Freshmen P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and sophomores Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard could all be back after this season. Tall wings Wenyen Gabriel, Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt could also return.

At this point, UK is seriously recruiting 6-10 power forward Simi Shittu and has extended a scholarship offer to 7-3 power forward Bol Bol.

Other under-the-radar frontcourt players like Hayes are bound to pop up on UK’s radar over the next few months.

Default pick?

Last week, the Herald-Leader asked five national recruiting analysts to handicap the most likely landing spot for No. 1 player R.J. Barrett, and four of them concluded that Duke was the favorite going into his round of official visits.

We heard from many UK fans who weren’t happy with our panel’s conclusion, and the most common complaint was along the lines of: “Recruiting analysts just automatically pick Duke for the top prospects these days.”

Cameron Reddish committed to Duke last week. Gregory Payan AP

That’s certainly not true of this 2018 class, according to the 247Sports Crystal Ball.

At the time the Barrett article was posted, he was one of only two uncommitted players in the 2018 class that had Duke as his “favorite” in the Crystal Ball.

The other was Cameron Reddish, who announced a commitment to Duke the next day. The Blue Devils also have an early commitment from five-star point guard Tre Jones. And that’s it, as far as the Crystal Ball is concerned.

Since Duke’s class is almost certain to include more than three signees, that would indicate that recruiting analysts are actually underselling the Blue Devils at this point.

Duke has also been seriously recruiting five-star point guard Darius Garland, five-star small forward Zion Williamson, five-star small forward Nassir Little, five-star power forward Emmitt Williams and four-star center David McCormack, but the Crystal Ball says Duke doesn’t lead for any of those players.

The current leaders: Vanderbilt for Garland, Kansas for Williamson, North Carolina for Little, Oregon for Williams, and Oklahoma State for McCormack.

Barrett’s visit

Speaking of R.J. Barrett, the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class was in Lexington last weekend for the first official visit of his recruitment.

Barrett — a 6-foot-7 shooting guard from Ontario — has said the usual post-visit things in interviews with ZagsBlog and since that trip, but — behind the scenes — it sounds as if it couldn’t have gone any better from UK’s end.

R.J. Barrett is ranked by as the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2018. Mike Fender

The Herald-Leader was told that the visit was as good as any UK has hosted over the past few years and that the Cats look to be in better shape now than they were before the trip.

Topics hammered home during the official visit jibed with the main factors Barrett and his family have stated that they’re looking for in a college.

Rowan Barrett, the player’s father, has told the Herald-Leader multiple times that a “family atmosphere” would be one of the most important traits in the school of R.J.’s choice. Laying out a plan for how to best prepare Barrett for the NBA would also be important, his father has said in the past. UK clearly checked both of those boxes.

Earlier this week, we ranked the most likely 2018 targets to ultimately end up as Wildcats, and Barrett came in at No. 4 on that list. After getting some feedback from those close to his visit, perhaps he should have been a spot or two higher.

Barrett will take official visits to Duke, Arizona, Oregon and Michigan, then announce a college decision in time for the early signing period in November.

R.J. Barrett is the No. 1 player in the 2019 class, but he might be moving to 2018 soon.