A general rule on the recruiting scene: if John Calipari is spending a lot of his time watching a rising high school senior this late in the process, the UK coach thinks he has a pretty good shot to ultimately land that prospect.
For every session of the Nike Peach Jam that he attended last week, Calipari was sure to find a courtside seat for wherever Vernon Carey was playing.
Another general rule on the recruiting scene: never count Calipari out in straight-up, head-to-head battles for the players he wants most.
Though he told reporters at Peach Jam earlier in the week that his recruitment is still wide open, James Wiseman acknowledged in a nationally televised interview Sunday that UK and Memphis are his clear top two.
Wiseman and Carey are generally regarded as the two best prospects in the country.
Does Calipari have something epic brewing for his 2019 class?
“They can play together, for sure,” 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader this week. “But I would be surprised if Kentucky got both of them. Kentucky’s in a battle with Memphis for Wiseman, and they’re in a battle with Michigan State and Duke and some others with Carey. The odds are they’re not getting both.
“They could get one. Two would surprise me.”
One would be better than none, obviously, and none is what UK has been getting from the pool of top-five prospects over the past few recruiting cycles.
The Cats have gone three full cycles since landing a top-five player — that was Skal Labissiere, whose UK career didn’t go as planned — and it’s been a full six cycles since Calipari signed a consensus No. 1 recruit (Nerlens Noel in 2012).
Kentucky has obviously still managed great things on the recruiting trail since — and Calipari has shied away from several top-five prospects in that span, for various reasons — but the 2019 cycle is one that’s setting up well for Kentucky to land a player from the top of the rankings.
Wiseman and Carey are, quite literally, at the top of that list.
The No. 1 overall player in the 247Sports and ESPN rankings, Wiseman — a 7-foot power forward at Memphis (Tenn.) East High School — was the first prospect in the 2019 class to land a UK scholarship offer.
His well-documented recruitment is, basically, down to Kentucky and Memphis.
“He doesn’t say nothing,” UK commitment and Wiseman friend Tyrese Maxey said. “He’s not going to tell you anything. He’s a very quiet guy.”
To Maxey’s point, Wiseman spoke for nearly five minutes after one of his Peach Jam games last Thursday and said very little that shined any light at all on his recruitment.
He said he still has a great relationship with Memphis Coach Penny Hardaway — his former Nike league and high school coach — and he’s hoping to take an unofficial visit to Lexington sometime soon, then return for an official visit at a later date.
Daniels logged a Crystal Ball prediction in favor of Kentucky on Wiseman’s page last fall. That was before Hardaway got the Memphis job, and the recruitment — at one point seemingly a sure thing for the Cats — is now one big guessing game.
“I don’t think he’s in a rush to make a decision,” Daniels said. “He’s in a position where everyone’s waiting on him, it’s not the other way around. So I don’t think there’s too much going on there right now.
“Everybody wants me to take a guess at where he’s going to go — and I know you know who I Crystal Ball’d him to a while ago — but I think everyone’s guessing right now. I think there’s a ways to go.”
Maxey was asked to make a prediction last Thursday.
“I hope it’s Kentucky!” he said.
That’s not a prediction.
“I honestly don’t know,” Maxey acknowledged. “Honestly, it’s almost like a coin flip. He’s pretty quiet.”
UK commitment DJ Jeffries is also a friend of Wiseman’s and has been his teammate the past two summers on the Nike circuit. Does he have a prediction? “No, sir,” Jeffries said. “You never know with James.”
It’ll likely stay that way until Wiseman is ready to tell the world where he wants to go to school.
Carey — a 6-10 power forward from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the No. 1 player in the Rivals.com rankings — is in a similar spot.
He’s narrowed his list to UK, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina and Miami — where his father, Vernon Carey Sr., was a college football standout — but his public comments haven’t provided many clues as to where he might be leaning. Off-the-record conversations don’t yield much information with any confidence behind it either.
There might be a simple explanation for that.
“I don’t think Vernon Carey knows where he’s going to school yet,” Daniels said. “I still think he’s sifting through it, and there are a handful of schools involved. I couldn’t call a favorite right now for him.”
UK certainly has a shot though, and the Cats have some points in their favor.
Carey told the Herald-Leader this spring that he’s been talking to former UK post player Bam Adebayo about possibly joining the team. When asked last week who he tries to model his game after as he attempts to become a more versatile big, he said this: “I just watch guys like Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Those two guys, pretty much.”
After taking his first official visit to Michigan State several months ago, Carey has four such trips left. He said he’d be at Duke sometime in October, and UNC and Miami sometime in November, though he didn’t know specific dates. He did know exactly when he’s visiting Lexington.
“I’ll be up in October for the Big Blue Madness,” he said.
Carey and Wiseman are friends off the court — they were teammates on the USA Basketball U16 squad last summer — and Carey said they could “for sure” play together at the next level.
A little while later, Maxey was naming off the 2019 prospects he’s recruiting on behalf of UK — it’s a long list — and Wiseman and Carey were the first two he mentioned.
Jeffries took that a step further.
“I really haven’t been talking to nobody but James and Vernon,” said the 6-8 forward.
Interesting. What would a UK frontcourt of Carey, Jeffries and Wiseman look like?
“National championship,” Jeffries said with a smile.