The Penny-mania that has galvanized the city of Memphis and become a dominant talking point in college basketball circles over the past few weeks has also threatened John Calipari’s recruiting plans for his old hometown.
Penny Hardaway’s hire as the new head coach of the Memphis Tigers was expected to cause a recruiting splash, and it has. How much it will hurt Calipari and the Cats remains to be seen, but the nation’s recruitniks are watching closely.
UK’s 2019 recruiting strategy was apparent early, and it centered on Memphis, Calipari’s stomping grounds for nine years before he came to Lexington.
James Wiseman and DJ Jeffries were teammates with Team Penny — a squad founded and coached by Hardaway — on the Nike circuit, and they were the first two prospects from the 2019 class to land scholarship offers from UK.
Calipari and assistant coach Tony Barbee extended those offers on the same day last fall. By that time, both players were living in the Memphis area. That’s where Jeffries grew up, and Wiseman had moved there from Nashville so he could continue to play for Hardaway at Memphis East High School.
When the offers went out, it looked like Calipari was in the catbird seat for both.
Jeffries — a 6-foot-7 small forward — made his college announcement in March, picking the Wildcats. A week later, Hardaway got the Memphis job.
Wiseman — a 6-11 power forward — was long seen as a major UK lean. And then Hardaway got the Memphis job.
So where does that leave Kentucky?
With Jeffries, the Cats are still in a good spot.
There has been speculation since Hardaway’s hiring that the versatile forward might rethink his college decision, even though Penny-to-Memphis was already in the works at the time of his original commitment.
Jeffries spoke about that from the Nike event in Indianapolis over the weekend — where he was teaming with Wiseman once again — and left little doubt on his future.
“It’s crazy,” he said of Penny-mania. “But I just try to ignore it, because I know that I’m going to be at Kentucky. But I hope the best for Penny and them though.”
Pressed a little more on his allegiance to Hardaway, the UK commit doubled down.
“It’s not going to sway me,” he said. “I’m going to stay at Kentucky.”
Jeffries won’t be able to officially sign with UK until November, but it sounds like the Cats have nothing to worry about.
His next mission: get Wiseman to join him.
“I try to talk to him every day,” Jeffries said, noting that he often adds “BBN” to just about anything Wiseman posts on social media. “I mess with him every now and then. Hopefully he chooses the right school and goes where he wants to go.”
Calipari and company have been telling Wiseman that right school is Kentucky, and Jeffries agrees.
“It might be his dream school,” he said. “Coach Cal, he’s got what’s best for kids. He’s a top player and he wants to go one-and-done – Cal’s got the good success at doing that. So I think that’s somewhere he would want to go.”
In the end, of course, it’ll all be up to Wiseman, who is ranked by ESPN and 247Sports as the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 class. National analyst Evan Daniels recently called him the best prospect in all of high school basketball, regardless of grade.
Calipari could certainly use him. He has a well-documented history of success with talented post players at UK, but he’s also in a bit of a (relative) drought with top recruits. The Cats have gone three straight cycles without a top-five commitment and six without a No. 1-ranked signee.
Hardaway could certainly use him. He has already pulled in some nice players to Memphis, but the local legend needs a victory in one of these high-profile, five-star recruitments to make a true splash on the trail.
Wiseman is stuck in the middle, and he’s not passing out hints.
In his interview session over the weekend, he praised Calipari. He also praised Penny.
He spoke highly of UK’s basketball tradition. He also spoke highly of the love they have for the game in Memphis.
He talked about his close relationship with UK assistant Joel Justus, who has been recruiting him for more than a year. He also talked about the NBA experience of Memphis assistant Mike Miller, and how that could be good for his development.
Seemingly every time he had something nice to say about UK, he quickly followed it up with something positive about Memphis. And vice versa.
Hardaway recently made a comment that he and Miller — both NBA veterans — were the best equipped in college basketball to coach one-and-done players, a group Calipari has had more success with than anyone.
Wiseman was asked who he thought would be best.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Wiseman was also asked when he thought he might make that final decision.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Neither does anyone else, including his friend, teammate and — at the moment — UK’s most important recruiter.
“James is so quiet and laid back, so you really never know,” Jeffries said. “He don’t show no emotions.”
Wiseman did give UK fans a glimmer of hope in this seemingly 50/50 recruitment Saturday, when he responded to question about who he’d like to play alongside at the next level. His answer to that one raised eyebrows (literally) among the scrum of assembled reporters, many of them based in Lexington.
Hagans is already committed to Kentucky. Maxey is expected to do the same sometime soon.
The latter was asked about that statement later in the day, and the feeling there was mutual.
“James is really cool,” Maxey said. “And, of course, everybody wants to play with James. He’s seven foot. Knocks down big shots. He’s huge. What more can I say about him?”
How about a prediction?
“Memphis or Kentucky, I guess,” he said.
Could you be more specific?
“I honestly have no idea,” he said.
Join the club.