Less than two weeks before one of John Calipari’s most talented Kentucky teams yet takes the floor for its first real game of the season, those who follow UK basketball recruiting are already wondering what the Wildcats coach has planned for his frontcourt of the future.
Calipari has been telling prospective recruits that there’s a good chance all four of UK’s current frontcourt players — graduate transfer Reid Travis, sophomores Nick Richards and PJ Washington, and five-star freshman EJ Montgomery — will be playing professionally this time next season.
That’s a good sign for the current team, but a mass exodus in the frontcourt could be bad news for the 2019 edition of the Wildcats, especially when factoring in the possibility that Kentucky misses on all — or even most — of its remaining post targets in the 2019 recruiting class.
With UK recruiting followers already anxious on social media over this scenario, Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans listed Kentucky prominently in his Thursday note on which programs should be in “panic” mode with the early signing period just three weeks away.
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Evans put UK at a “7” on the 1-10 “panic meter,” qualifying that distinction by pointing out that Kentucky already has a top-five national class featuring perimeter players Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Dontaie Allen.
The Wildcats face “a major dilemma down low,” however, wrote Evans, who went on to say that even if UK lands one of their elite frontcourt targets for 2019, that wouldn’t be enough to solve the post concerns if all four current Cats leave.
“As of right now, I don’t think they’re the leader for any of those guys,” Evans told the Herald-Leader this week, naming Wiseman as the most likely to ultimately pick UK, which is locked in an intense battle with Memphis for the 7-footer.
Landing two or more from that group would be especially tough.
“I don’t see that cluster of three going to school together. Of course, Duke and Michigan State would love to get both Isaiah and Vernon — they’re definitely trying to sell it — but I don’t think that happens. And I don’t think it happens at Kentucky, either.”
So, say UK lands only one of those players (or strikes out completely), what then?
A small-ball lineup for next season might be a good bet for Calipari, and he’s already off to a good start if the Cats need to head in that direction.
Whitney is listed as a wing — and has definite perimeter skills — but he recently measured at 6-7.5 with a 6-10.5 wingspan and has the tenacity to play against bigger opponents.
UK’s official visitor last weekend, Keion Brooks, measured at 6-6.5 with a 6-9.5 wingspan at the same Nike camp this summer, and he also has a skill set that could lend itself to playing closer to the basket in college.
A situation where Whitney and a player like Brooks cycle between the “3” and “4” positions — both playing some on the perimeter and both having the ability to play certain opponents in the paint — could be a solution.
“Honestly, I think Keion Brooks is best in college as a small-ball ‘4,’” Evans told the Herald-Leader. “And Whitney might be able to fit that role a little better just because of his mentality. … Kahlil’s (approach) is, ‘I’m going to go right at your heart.’
“Honestly, I always saw Keldon Johnson as that ‘3-4’ combo type until EJ Montgomery and Reid Travis committed to Kentucky. And I think Kahlil is the immediate replacement for Keldon. So if I saw that in Keldon, I could definitely see that in Kahlil.”
And UK is still recruiting a couple of other talented players that could fit that same mold.
Matthew Hurt is a legit 6-9 and — though he likes to play on the perimeter and has developed into a three-point threat — also possesses a great post skill set. He’s ranked No. 6 overall by Rivals.com and isn’t expected to make a college decision until the spring. UK is seen in recruiting circles as a legitimate landing spot.
Jaden McDaniels measured at 6-10 with a near-7-foot wingspan at that Nike camp in August and is ranked No. 4 overall by Rivals.com. He’s looking to play on the perimeter in college but could log some minutes closer to the basket, and Kentucky is among his final five schools.
There’s also been buzz of recent UK interest in five-star forward CJ Walker, who measured at 6-8 with a 6-10 wingspan at the August Nike camp and averaged 9.9 rebounds per game in the Nike league this past summer. The only players who tallied more boards in Nike play were Stewart and five-star center Kofi Cockburn, who drew some UK interest over the summer but has not been tied to the Wildcats in recent months.
There’s also an expectation that a few five-star prospects currently in the 2020 class might reclassify between now and next season.
If the regular signing period has come and gone next spring and Kentucky still has a need for more post players, Calipari could always do what he did this past June: add a player from another college program.
The UK coach has been vocal about his concerns with the graduate-transfer route in the past, but he did add Travis for this season and pursued Pittsburgh grad transfer Cameron Johnson (now in his final season at North Carolina) a year before that.
It’s one of many options Calipari will have, even if some of his top high school targets go elsewhere.
“I really think this grad-transfer realm will become more of (an option) for Kentucky,” Evans said. “I think Reid Travis will have great success this year, and I think Cal will see that and use it a little more frequently.”