For a time, it appeared that James Wiseman would be the player that would end the skid that has dogged John Calipari on the recruiting trail over the past few years.
Not since the 2015 class has Calipari — who built the reputation as college basketball’s greatest recruiter early in his tenure at Kentucky — landed a commitment from a consensus top-five player. There have been several high-profile recruiting misses in the time since Skal Labissiere signed with UK four years ago, but Wiseman was supposed to be the player to turn that around.
Calipari and his coaching staff certainly put in the work.
They started meeting with him more than two years ago. They traveled the country — and even made a trip to Argentina — to see him play at countless events. They hosted him for visits to Lexington, and — this time last year — they looked like clear frontrunners in his recruitment.
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On Tuesday afternoon, Wiseman committed to Memphis.
By that time, it wasn’t much of a mystery where the No. 1-ranked recruit in the 2019 class would end up. Whether Wiseman knew it or not, his decision was likely made eight months ago, when the Tigers hired Penny Hardaway as their next head coach.
Calipari and the Cats spent the time since then fighting an uphill battle. They ultimately lost.
“I think it hurts because that’s the guy they wanted for a long time,” 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “They put in a lot of time and effort into him. They were really the first to do so. And if Penny Hardaway’s not the head coach at Memphis, the kid probably ends up at Kentucky. And he’s probably already made that decision.
“But, it’s all a moot point, because Penny Hardaway did end up at Memphis, and it’s hard to beat out that relationship.”
The ties between Hardaway and Wiseman aren’t long, but they are deep.
Wiseman — a 7-footer from Nashville — switched Nike league teams during the summer of 2017, ending up on a program coached by Hardaway, the former NBA star who had previously mentored several young players that had gone on to college success.
That experience was such a positive one that Wiseman left his hometown and moved to Memphis, where he played last season under the tutelage of Hardaway at Memphis East High School, which would go on to win a Tennessee state championship.
At the same time, Calipari — having missed out on class of 2018 stars like RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish to prolong that skid with the best of the best — had zeroed in on Wiseman as his next big target.
While Hardaway was settling into the Memphis job, Calipari was racking up victories on the recruiting trail. First it was EJ Montgomery. Then Ashton Hagans. Then Tyrese Maxey. And then graduate transfer Reid Travis.
The UK coach had his recruiting mojo back.
“I think Cal was a little bit rejuvenated a year ago. He kind of wanted to prove some people wrong,” Rivals.com’s Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader. “You started to have this pessimism surrounding Cal on the recruiting trail, which is kind of a first. And I think his response was to get a guy like Wiseman. He pinpointed him super early in the process as ‘the guy’ in this class.
“And the fact that he didn’t get him — especially (losing) him to his former employer — I think it’s definitely a blow.”
It’s likely to be just the latest in a series of losses on the 2019 recruiting trail.
After a tremendous start to the cycle — with commitments from Maxey, fellow top-10 prospect Kahlil Whitney and in-state star Dontaie Allen, all before the summer’s end — things have fizzled.
It started with DJ Jeffries’ decommitment from UK in late July — the first player to make such a move in the Calipari era — and later his commitment to Memphis and Hardaway, his former coach on the Nike circuit.
Kentucky lost out on top-20 targets Scottie Lewis, Oscar Tshiebwe and Bryan Antoine this fall, and Wiseman looked like the Cats’ best opportunity to land a much-needed difference-maker in the frontcourt, which could be depleted after stay-or-go decisions are made following this season.
UK is still recruiting class of 2019 forwards Matthew Hurt, Jaden McDaniels and Keion Brooks — and the Cats appear to have a realistic shot with all three — but all of those players prefer to play on the perimeter and won’t do much to offset the loss of Travis, the likely loss of PJ Washington, and the possible loss of Nick Richards and Montgomery after this season.
“I don’t see it happening with Vernon Carey. And I don’t see it happening with Isaiah Stewart,” Evans said. “I think they’re going to be in — I don’t want to say ‘dire straits,’ because it’s Cal, and he can get some guys — but I just don’t see it happening with either of those two guys.
“Maybe, Isaiah, they can make a last-ditch effort there. But I feel a lot better with Duke, Michigan State and Washington there. … And I think Kentucky, honestly, could be fifth for Vernon.”
Graduate transfers (like Travis) and reclassifications from 2020 remain possibilities, but it will be difficult to find star players in either pool, and such options likely won’t be known until the spring. By then, UK could be in desperate need of future frontcourt help.
Carey is expected to announce his final three schools this week, and the Cats might not even be on that list. Kentucky was late to Stewart’s recruitment and appear to be a long shot.
Both of those players are top-five national prospects.
“I think they’re on the outside looking in for both guys,” Daniels said.