UK Men's Basketball

Nation’s top basketball recruits say UK-Duke rivalry is only natural

'It's looking good for Kentucky': Top basketball recruits talk up the Cats

Several of the nation's top basketball recruits talk about John Calipari and the UK basketball program from last week's Team USA training camp in Colorado Springs.
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Several of the nation's top basketball recruits talk about John Calipari and the UK basketball program from last week's Team USA training camp in Colorado Springs.

The ongoing recruiting rivalry between the Kentucky and Duke basketball programs is serious business for the coaches involved and the rabid fans who follow each team.

In each of the past three recruiting cycles, the Wildcats and Blue Devils have battled it out for the nation’s top high school prospects and finished some combination of 1-2 in the final recruiting rankings.

Barring some big surprises, that will be the case again with the class of 2017.

Many of the top-ranked recruits from that group have scholarship offers from both schools and participated in last week’s Team USA training camp in Colorado Springs. While they understood the seriousness that some fans put on recruiting, many grinned or laughed at the mention of a “rivalry” between UK and Duke.

To them, the recruiting war is only natural.

“You have two top-tier programs, and they’re fighting for the same players,” said five-star shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. “The last couple of years, people have compared them as the top two in the college basketball world, so you’re always going to bump heads with somebody that’s on the same level as you.

“They’re really both great programs, and you can’t go wrong with either one.”

Trent — a native of Apple Valley, Minn., who has had offers from both schools for more than a year — broke down what came to his mind when each school was mentioned.

On Duke: “You think of Coach K. You think of excellence. You think of all the great tradition they have. And everything great and positive they’re doing. Top-tier program. They have everything lined up for you to be successful, on and off the court.”

And Kentucky: “You hear Coach Cal and NBA. That’s what you think of, and it’s great. He really helps players get to the next level. He cares about all his players, and that’s why he’s a special coach.”

Another five-star shooting guard with offers from both schools, Hamidou Diallo, also viewed the rivalry as natural.

“Two great programs — it wouldn’t be right if they didn’t battle it out,” he said. “That’s like two great players stepping on the court and they don’t battle against each other.

“It’s just a blessing having those two schools going after me as hard as they are.”

The recruits being pursued by UK and Duke talked plenty about each school’s tradition and the individual successes of each program’s current Hall of Fame coach.

The other stuff — like John Calipari’s thinly veiled shots at Duke in his latest “manifesto,” and the mocking tweet from the Blue Devils’ official Twitter account following Marques Bolden’s college announcement — can be left to the fans.

Five-star center Wendell Carter says he and his fellow recruits pay no attention to it.

“Whatever school is best for us, that’s where we’re going,” he said.

You have two top-tier programs, and they’re fighting for the same players. ... You’re always going to bump heads with somebody that’s on the same level as you.

Gary Trent Jr., five-star shooting guard

More of the same

Speaking of UK and Duke, the buzz at Team USA camp indicated that the 2017 recruiting cycle could end with an even wider talent gulf between those two schools and everybody else in college basketball.

The Blue Devils do indeed seem to be in solid shape with top-10 players Mohamed Bamba, Wendell Carter, Kevin Knox and Gary Trent Jr., according to some analysts in attendance last week. That potential class could also include five-star point guard Quade Green, who received a scholarship offer during a visit to Duke on Tuesday and is emerging as the Blue Devils’ top target at the position. (Green will visit Lexington next week).

UK won’t be left behind.

The Cats could be considered the frontrunners for point guard Trae Young, shooting guard Hamidou Diallo, wing player John Petty and power forward P.J. Washington, all five-star prospects. All four of those recruitments could very well come down to UK vs. the local choice: Oklahoma for Young, UConn for Diallo, Alabama for Petty and Texas for Washington.

Add in that UK likely will be looking to add seven or eight newcomers to its class of 2017 — the Cats also appear to be in good shape with other five-star players like Nick Richards and Jarred Vanderbilt — and it’s clear that Calipari will once again challenge for the nation’s No. 1 class.

No hurry

Five-star center Mohamed Bamba — the No. 2 player in the rankings for 2017 — attended the Team USA U18 training camp last week but did not participate due to a sprained ankle suffered earlier this spring.

Bamba observed the practice sessions, shot around on the side and resumed individual workouts Friday. He still made the first cut and will compete for a spot on the final 12-man roster next month.

Before that, Bamba said he’d “absolutely” be back on the court for Nike’s Peach Jam finals in a couple of weeks.

“My plan is to dominate at Peach Jam,” he said, adding: “I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. The only person I have to prove myself is myself. That’s it.”

Bamba, who averaged 12.7 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game on the Nike circuit before his injury, has scholarship offers from UK, Duke and a host of other major programs.

He said he doesn’t have a timeframe for a college decision — or even one for cutting his list of schools — and sounded nowhere near a final choice, despite the continued buzz that Duke is the leader.

“It’s still at the same place,” he said. “I haven’t really talked to too many coaches. … Still got some time.”

No deal?

The talk of “package deals” — where two or more top prospects get together and commit to the same school — is a topic of conversation in every recruiting cycle. In the class of 2017, one of the most talked about package deals includes Trae Young and top-five teammate Michael Porter Jr.

Many of the nation’s top programs had been recruiting both players, including UK.

There’s only a couple kids that have ever really pulled it off. So I’m skeptical until it comes to fruition.

Evan Daniels, recruiting analyst

Things got more complicated when Porter’s father, Michael Porter Sr., accepted a job as an assistant coach at Washington earlier this spring, joining the staff of Coach Lorenzo Romar, who also happens to be Porter Jr.’s godfather.

The Porter family — younger brother Jontay is committed to the Huskies for 2018 — will move to Seattle, where Porter Jr. will play his senior season of high school. After that, just about everyone who follows recruiting expects him to play for Washington.

Porter Jr. has already cut UK, Duke and Kansas from his list of schools.

Where does that leave Young, one of UK’s top recruiting targets?

“I knew they were looking at that,” Young said. “Even with his dad not even being there, Coach Romar has been contacting me and recruiting me. But when Mike’s dad got the job, I was supportive of him and his family. They have a great family.”

Young said Washington would likely be one of the schools he visits before making a college decision, but’s Evan Daniels — not a believer in this package deal before Porter Sr.’s move — remains unconvinced that it’ll happen.

“They’re good friends, but it’s a hard thing to figure out,” Daniels said. “And there’s only a couple kids that have ever really pulled it off. So I’m skeptical until it comes to fruition.”

Scoring machine

Georgia combo guard Collin Sexton lit up the nets during the Nike EYBL regular season, averaging a league-high 31.7 points per game — nearly nine points per game more than next-highest-scorer Michael Porter Jr.

Sexton made the Team USA U17 squad that will play in Spain later this week and was one of the most energetic players during last week’s training camp in Colorado.

The 6-foot-2 prospect from the class of 2017 listed Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas as some of the schools recruiting him the hardest. He plans to take official visits to Arizona and Kansas in the fall.

Kentucky, which will be looking for several guards in the class of 2017, has not contacted him.

Even if UK did try to get involved, it might be too late.

Sexton said “Eh, so-so. I’m not sure,” when asked if he’d be interested in hearing from the Wildcats. He also said he could make an early college decision, though he has no exact timetable.

Ben Roberts: 859-231-3216, @NextCats