UK Recruiting

Kentucky’s chances trending up (and down?) with top basketball recruits

Justus: Kentucky a place where you get better and play around great players

Kentucky basketball assistant Joel Justus offers a recruiting pitch of sorts, saying that Kentucky isn't just for the one-and-done type players.
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Kentucky basketball assistant Joel Justus offers a recruiting pitch of sorts, saying that Kentucky isn't just for the one-and-done type players.

This will be a big week for college basketball coaches, who hit the recruiting trail starting Friday for a three-day evaluation window and the only stretch this spring when watching prospects play in competitive games is permitted.

Some recruiting developments of note as John Calipari and company plan their weekends on the shoe company circuits:

Trending up

Cliff Omoruyi: The latest big man to pop up on UK’s recruiting radar for next year, Omoruyi landed his scholarship offer from the Wildcats when Calipari instructed at a coaching clinic at his school, Roselle Catholic — also the alma mater of Kahlil Whitney and Isaiah Briscoe — earlier this month. After the surprise offer, Omoruyi translated that good fortune to the court, playing well alongside a new cast of teammates on the Under Armour circuit last weekend.

“He was tremendous,” analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader. “He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t need to be around the same teammates all the time to produce. He’s a hard-playing, energy-giving guy.

“He’s a monster of a center. He’s the definition of a rim protector: 6-10 with a 7-6 wingspan, fully well-proportioned and strong as a frickin’ house. He’s a physical dude. And he’s a big-time lob threat. I wouldn’t say he’s one of the most skilled guys around, but he’s also not super raw. He can score with his back to the bucket. But he’s at his best as a rebounder, shot-blocker, drop-off scorer or weakside putback guy.”

Omoruyi — a native of Nigeria who has been playing organized basketball for only a couple of years — is expected to return to the Nike circuit this weekend and play for the New York Lightning, a team coached by Dana Dingle, who was a standout player at UMass under Calipari and still keeps in touch with the UK coach.

Kentucky appears to be well-positioned for Omoruyi, who also has scholarship offers from Virginia, UCLA, Syracuse, Florida and several other major programs.

“They’re not in a rush, but Kentucky definitely jumps to the top of the list with that offer,” Evans said. “It really opened their eyes, and they’re really impressed with Kentucky and Cal and all that. They’re definitely a school to beat.”

Rivals ranks Omoruyi as the No. 56 prospect in the 2020 class.

Trending down

UK and Sharife Cooper: The diminutive point guard from the Atlanta area emerged during this past season as possibly Kentucky’s No. 1 target at that position for 2020. He also emerged as one of the very best players in all of high school basketball, becoming the first junior to earn national player of the year honors.

Bad news for UK: Cooper might not stay in the class of 2020, and he might be leaning elsewhere. Evans recently wrote that “It would be a surprise” if Auburn doesn’t end up landing Cooper’s commitment. He elaborated on that in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

“It’s not set in stone, but Bruce Pearl has done a tremendous job in the Atlanta area,” Evans said. “He has Isaac Okoro coming his way, who played with Sharife in travel ball and high school ball. Sharife’s been to campus a number of times. I think the Final Four run definitely helps that out some more. I think Auburn is definitely the school to beat. I think Kentucky is in second place, but they’re still playing runner-up to Auburn right now and trying to play catch-up.”

It’s worth noting that Cooper turns 18 years old in June, and rumors have been swirling in recruiting circles that he could skip next season and jump straight to college. UK already has Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley lined up for next season. Auburn could be in need of some more point guard help.

“There’s nothing definite, but there have been a lot of rumors of late,” Evans said. “They swirled last year, and they also swirled around Okoro reclassifying, and that didn’t happen. The Sharife rumors now also coincide with Jared Harper testing out the NBA waters. So, say Jared decides to leave early — potentially Auburn tries to make a push for that even more.”

Harper has until May 29 to remove his name from the NBA Draft. In the meantime, Cooper will be back on the Nike circuit this weekend — alongside fellow UK target Brandon Boston — and Calipari will surely be in the stands for at least one of his games.

Nike is stacked

So far, Calipari has extended scholarship offers to a total of a dozen players from the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes. All but one of those prospects — California wing Johnny Juzang — is expected to play on the Nike circuit this spring and summer.

Cooper and Boston will be teammates on their Nike league team, as will major UK targets Scottie Barnes and Isaiah Todd. Five-star guards Jalen Green and RJ Hampton will be new to the Nike circuit, while Omoruyi, N’Faly Dante, Jalen Johnson and Jeremy Roach will also return to the league for one last season. Juzang is set to play on the Adidas circuit.

The first 2021 recruit to land a UK offer, Jonathan Kuminga, will play Nike ball for New York Rens, the summer league alma mater of recent UK guard Hamidou Diallo.

That concentration of talent on the Nike circuit means Calipari will be spending much of his recruiting time following that league, which tips off Friday night in Atlanta and wraps up at the annual Peach Jam event in South Carolina in mid-July.

Additional UK targets will almost certainly emerge along the way.