UK Recruiting

UK basketball recruiting thoughts on a new target, possible five-star commitments and more

Oscar Tshiebwe is emerging as one of the best post players in the class of 2019.
Oscar Tshiebwe is emerging as one of the best post players in the class of 2019.

A day after four-star post player Oscar Tshiebwe announced he had cut his list to eight schools, national analyst Corey Evans said that he saw the Congo native’s recruitment as a two-team race.

“If I were a betting man, I would place the house on Tshiebwe ending up at West Virginia or Kentucky,” Evans wrote.

West Virginia has been on Tshiebwe’s trail longer than anyone, and the Mountaineers have been considered his favorite for a while. UK just recently got involved. The other six — Baylor, Georgetown, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi and Virginia — likely have their work cut out for them.

UK’s recruitment of Tshiebwe — a 6-foot-8, 230-pound center now playing for Kennedy Catholic (Pa.) — is so new that there has not yet been a confirmation that the Wildcats have extended a scholarship offer. Evans said if that offer does come, he’d be surprised if Tshiebwe doesn’t ultimately end up in UK’s 2019 recruiting class.

“I think they’re being sensitive, both sides,” Evans told the Herald-Leader. “I think Kentucky wants reassurances of: ‘If we do recruit you, how serious are you about us?’ Because I don’t think they want it to affect their recruitment of guys like Matt Hurt, James Wiseman and Vernon Carey. But they have shown some interest. If an offer does happen, I think it puts them into the pole spot.”

The Herald-Leader was recently told that UK’s pursuit of Tshiebwe is actually quite a bit further along than anyone is letting on publicly. The Wildcats’ coaching staff watched him get the better of Wiseman — UK’s No. 1 target for 2019 and the top-ranked player in that class — during the July evaluation period, and John Calipari has been in direct contact with Tshiebwe since then.

The UK coaching staff will continue to vigorously pursue Wiseman, Carey and Hurt, however, though the Cats could be looking to add more than one post player to their 2019 class with Reid Travis definitely gone after this season, and PJ Washington and EJ Montgomery considered possible first-round picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Tshiebwe is the type of player that could help UK right away, and those who have seen him extensively describe a prospect who plays with the energy and toughness that Calipari covets.

“He’s hands down the best rebounder in high school basketball. I mean, that’s bar none. He’s the best rebounder out there,” Evans said. “Offensively, he’s actually improved very much. This time last year it was just drop-off finishes and put-back dunks. Now he’s developed a hook shot over his left shoulder, and, in July, the first half alone of one game he had in L.A., he hit two three-point jump shots and a turnaround 15-footer off the left elbow. And I never saw him make three jump shots, ever before. … So that just adds more to what he does.

“He’s the ideal rim presence — a little undersized at 6-8, but he has a 7-4 wingspan — and he blocks shots, rim-runs, rebounds his area at a high level. The guy could be a 10-plus rebounder in college basketball this year. He just has a phenomenal nose for the basketball. A phenomenal motor, and a phenomenal know-how of where to be and how to use his body.” ranks Tshiebwe as the No. 45 overall player in the class.

Top 25 prospects

Last week, the Herald-Leader took a look at the top 25 prospects in the class of 2019 and included a perceived favorite — based on predictions from national experts and conversations with other basketball insiders — in the recruitment of nearly all of those players.

Only one available prospect — No. 19-ranked Kahlil Whitney — had UK designated as the frontrunner. The 6-6 wing from Chicago visited Lexington this past weekend and is expected to commit to the Wildcats soon.

Don’t expect him to be the only future UK commitment from the top-25 rankings. While no other players had Kentucky in bold next to their names on our list — other than No. 8-ranked Tyrese Maxey, who committed to UK in May — the Cats are in a good spot for a few other top-25 recruits.

James Wiseman — the No. 1-ranked player in the class — is at the top of the list of those who could very well end up at Kentucky. The Cats are battling Memphis for his commitment in what amounts to a two-team race. The Tigers are the leaders on his 247Sports Crystal Ball page, but no reputable recruiting insiders are discounting UK’s chances, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Wiseman ends up a Wildcat.

There has been considerable buzz in recent weeks that UK is also in a better spot with Vernon Carey — the No. 2 player in the class — than previously thought. Duke and Michigan State are often mentioned as possible favorites — Miami and North Carolina are the other two on his list — but Kentucky has a real shot to land the 6-10 power forward from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Carey will visit UK for Big Blue Madness in October.

Cole Anthony, Jaden McDaniels and Keion Brooks are others who could emerge as UK leans as the recruiting process evolves. And the Cats are still in the mix for top-15 players Matthew Hurt, Scottie Lewis and Jalen Lecque, among others.

Then there’s the possibility that other UK targets — Oscar Tshiebwe, for instance — could rise up the rankings and end up in top-25 territory.

Bottom line: Expect Calipari to sign more than two five-star players in his 2019 class.

Former commitment

For those still interested, the word on DJ Jeffries’ recruitment is that Memphis is the team to beat, Mississippi State has the best chance to overtake the Tigers, and Louisiana State is putting in a major effort but remains a long shot to land him.

Jeffries, who last week became John Calipari’s first decommitment at UK, is likely to visit all of those schools, and some others could join the list. Memphis emerged as a major Crystal Ball favorite in the immediate aftermath of his announcement that he was no longer committed to Kentucky.

Most importantly for UK fans, the buzz in recruiting circles continues to be that Jeffries’ decision will have zero negative impact on the Cats’ recruitment of his former AAU teammate, James Wiseman, whether Jeffries ultimately ends up at Memphis or not.

Open scholarships

The 2018-19 Wildcats only recently began practicing, and we’re already hearing some UK fans question if there will be enough open scholarships to accommodate all of Calipari’s recruits and returning players for the 2019-20 season.

The answer, of course, is yes.

UK goes into this season with just 10 scholarship players, leaving three open scholarships right off the bat. Graduate transfer Reid Travis will be out of eligibility at the end of the season, so that’s a fourth open scholarship.

PJ Washington is widely expected to enter the NBA Draft after his sophomore season, and that would be a fifth open scholarship. Incoming freshmen Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and EJ Montgomery have all been mentioned as possible lottery picks in 2019. Other young UK players are also likely to look hard at the NBA Draft after this season.

The Cats have had four scholarship players transfer out over the past three seasons, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for a departure of that kind after the upcoming campaign.

So it appears that Calipari will have six to eight scholarships to work with (maybe more) for the 2019 class, and the possibility of several key positions to fill. Current commitments Tyrese Maxey and Dontaie Allen should have plenty of company by the end of this recruiting cycle, and Calipari won’t have to worry about running out of available spots.