UK Recruiting

Early offers, UK’s chances with Matthew Hurt and more basketball recruiting thoughts

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for UK on the basketball recruiting trail, with the 2019 cycle entering its final stages and the Wildcats’ pursuit of top 2020 targets already heating up. A few developments worth keeping an eye on:

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Earlier scholarship offers?: One of the biggest recruiting knocks on John Calipari over the past couple of cycles has been his reluctance to pull the trigger on scholarship offers to top prospects early in the process.

There’s been plenty of chatter in recruiting circles that such delay hurt the Cats greatly in the pursuit of five-star post player Isaiah Stewart, who ultimately committed to Washington, and it almost cost them Keldon Johnson, whose father wasn’t shy about his displeasure over a late offer in the 2018 cycle. UK is obviously still recruiting at a very high level, but its standing with several other prospects has been negatively affected by the optics of waiting to extend an offer.

That might be changing.

In the span of about a week, Calipari has offered scholarships to two juniors — Brandon Boston and Isaiah Todd — and sophomore Jonathan Kuminga, a possible sign that UK’s coach is serious about making top recruits feel like major priorities a little earlier in the process.

Todd’s situation is unique — he might ultimately reclassify to 2019, so it was important to get that offer out as soon as possible — but, for now, he and Boston are the eighth and ninth prospects from the 2020 class to hold UK scholarship offers. Kuminga, who visited UK last week, is the first player from the 2021 class with an offer from the Wildcats.

Expect those numbers to grow even more over the next couple of months. The shoe company leagues start up again in April, and the first recruiting evaluation period for college coaches is just a few weeks away. Calipari and his assistant coaches will be out on the trail — they’ll hit the loaded Nike circuit, in particular, hard this spring — and existing targets are likely to transform themselves into top priorities while other new targets emerge.

Though the timing of these scholarship offers may seem a small thing, the elite prospects themselves — and, often more importantly, those players’ parents and other recruiting advisers — pay close attention to which schools are offering their peers, and even the order in which those offers are going out.

For a blue-blood like Kentucky, the timing of such offers is a balancing act, but it always helps to get in early on a player you’re probably going to want down the road.

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UK’s chances with Matthew Hurt?: For the longest time, Kansas has, according to many recruiting analysts, been the favorite for Hurt, one of the most coveted prospects in the 2019 class. The 6-foot-9 forward from Minnesota has strong ties to the Adidas circuit and played for Bill Self’s USA Basketball team last summer. Over the past few weeks, however, there has been considerable talk in UK circles that the Cats are in much better shape for Hurt than they’ve been getting credit for.

Kentucky could certainly use someone with Hurt’s size, versatility and offensive acumen — he’s averaging 37 points per game this season and can score from all over the court — but Duke is now making a run for favorite status in his recruitment.

247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels — always cautious with predictions and correct on 89 of 92 picks in the 2019 class so far — set off a Crystal Ball run last week when he picked the Blue Devils as the landing spot for Hurt, the No. 8 senior in the country.

That’s not a great sign for UK, but there’s still some hope for the Cats.

Hurt’s father told last week that they’re looking at April 20 — the recruit’s 19th birthday — as a possible decision date. The Hurt family has also been as meticulous as just about any in recent years, and it’s a sure bet they’ll weigh this decision from every angle before committing to a school. That means getting a good sense of who’s leaving, who’s staying, where Hurt fits in best, etc., and none of that will be clear for at least several more weeks.

Putting Hurt in the best position to succeed in the NBA will also be a top factor in this decision, and Calipari will certainly be hitting that topic hard for the remainder of this recruitment.

Holding pattern

College decisions: Hurt isn’t the only top UK target taking his time with a college decision. The other two seniors with scholarship offers from the Wildcats — Keion Brooks and Jaden McDaniels — have held off on bringing their recruitments to an end.

Brooks — a 6-7 wing from Indiana — seemed on the verge of a possible UK commitment after visiting Lexington a couple of weeks ago, but that didn’t happen. Brooks did announce Sunday night that he will reveal his college choice at a ceremony in his hometown of Fort Wayne on March 15, so he’ll almost certainly be the first of UK’s remaining 2019 targets to choose a school. Indiana and Michigan State are the Cats’ top competition (and the Hoosiers scored a major victory over the Spartans on the court Saturday).

McDaniels — a 6-10 forward from Seattle — wrapped up his senior season over the weekend, but it would be a surprise if he announces a decision before the McDonald’s Game at the end of this month, and that recruitment could very well stretch into April.

Isaiah Todd could still reclassify to 2019, but he’ll play on the Nike circuit first. That league’s regular season doesn’t end until late May, and the Peach Jam — if he chooses to play in that — isn’t until July. Other UK targets who have been mentioned as possible reclassification candidates — guards Jalen Green and RJ Hampton, and center N’Faly Dante — are in the exact same situation. Graduate transfers, like Reid Travis, will also be an option for Kentucky.

For reference’s sake, Ashton Hagans didn’t officially announce his reclassification until June 15 of last year. Travis didn’t commit to the Cats until five days after that.

UK is likely to add at least a couple of players to next season’s roster, but the waiting game will continue well into the spring, and — if the Cats miss on Brooks next week — it could be a while before anyone else joins their 2019 class.

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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