UK Recruiting

‘Trash talk’ has already begun for Kentucky and Florida basketball recruits

Kahlil Whitney is proud to be a McDonald’s All-American

UK basketball commitment Kahlil Whitney has made it to this week's McDonald's All-American Game, and he's looking forward to showing Kentucky fans what he can do on the court.
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UK basketball commitment Kahlil Whitney has made it to this week's McDonald's All-American Game, and he's looking forward to showing Kentucky fans what he can do on the court.

Last fall, shortly after taking recruiting visits to Kentucky and Florida, five-star basketball prospect Scottie Lewis had a decision to make. And it was a tough one.

“I went on those two visits back-to-back weekends. When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t go on social media for like two weeks,” Lewis told the Herald-Leader. “I had to ask the coaching staffs to stop texting me just so I could have time to think.”

Going into the visits, the consensus was that Lewis — a 6-foot-6 wing from New Jersey — was likely to end up at Florida, the program that had been recruiting him since middle school and the team that had already taken a commitment from friend and teammate Alex Klatsky, who was the son of Lewis’ longtime AAU team director and family friend, Brian Klatsky, a major Gators basketball supporter himself.

On the eve of his announcement — and with Lewis indeed leaning toward Florida — UK assistant coach Tony Barbee showed up in New Jersey for one last visit.

“That even made it more difficult to commit to the University of Florida,” he said. “But when I was really real with myself and the place I could be truly successful and be able to play my own game, I think the University of Florida was that best decision for me.

“For my family and I, it was mainly about comfort and familiarity, to be honest. And the University of Florida has been recruiting me since I was in the eighth grade. So I just knew those guys better. I trusted those guys better.”

In a recruiting cycle where UK seemed to finish in second place more often than usual, the loss of Lewis — a high-energy, super-athletic, team-first kid who relishes playing defense — was a tough one. That defeat won’t get any easier when the Cats have to play against him next season.

Florida will lose seniors KeVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes and Jalen Hudson — as well as some other postseason departures — from this season’s NCAA Tournament team, but the Gators’ roster should still be stacked for their next campaign.

Lewis is joined in the 2019 recruiting class by fellow McDonald’s All-American Tre Mann — a five-star point guard — as well as top-50 recruit Omar Payne and high-upside big man Jason Jitoboh. Expected returnees include Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson and Andrew Nembhard, all talented starters from last season’s team.

“We’re super excited for next year,” Lewis said. “They’re kind of building some pieces around Andrew and Noah Locke and Keyontae, and I’m happy I can add to that mix. … I’m trying to come in right away as a freshman and kind of be our team leader, be our captain. I think I’m very vocal, and I think they’ll accept the way I take that leadership role seriously. I hope that I can come in and take that over right away.”

Kentucky swept the Gators this past season and has won eight of the last 11 games in the series, one of the top rivalries in the Southeastern Conference.

From the comments during the recent McDonald’s All-American Game week, the rivalry should continue to be hotly contested in the near future. Each program had two commitments at the game: Lewis and Mann for the Gators, and Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney for the Cats.

They spent quite a bit of time with each other.

Mann said he and Maxey actually roomed together during McDonald’s week. When asked if he was surprised they would put a Wildcat and a Gator in the same hotel room for nearly a week, Mann smiled. “They didn’t, actually,” he said.

Turns out, he and Maxey rode to the team hotel on the same bus. When they got there, Maxey was supposed to room with West Virginia signee Oscar Tshiebwe and Mann with Southern Cal signee Isaiah Mobley. “He just put his stuff in my room, and when they got here, he told them they were together,” Mann said.

The SEC quartet had some fun during McDonald’s week, but they also set the stage for next season.

“There’s been a lot of trash talk this whole weekend between Kahlil, me, Scottie and Tyrese,” Mann said. “It’s all fun and games right now. But once the season comes and we play each other for real, it’s going to be all business. But, yeah, they’re making it really interesting with all the trash-talking they’re doing. … How they’re gonna beat us, and the type of plays they’re gonna do, who’s gonna guard who, and stuff like that.”

Lewis and Whitney are both from Jersey and actually played against each other in a major playoff game this season. Lewis’ team, Ranney School, prevailed over Whitney’s bunch from Roselle Catholic. There will be at least two rematches next year. “It’ll be Roselle vs. Ranney all over again. ... I can’t wait for those,” Lewis said.

For Lewis, the trip to Rupp Arena, in particular, will be a unique experience, but one he’s looking forward to.

“It’s going to be awesome,” he said. “I know the crowd’s going to be on my back. ‘You should’ve picked Kentucky.’ This, that and the third. But I know my teammates are going to have my head right, and I think — if I win — I’ll be a winner walking out of the gym, no matter what they say.”