UK Recruiting

‘Our swag is different’: There’s a new No. 1 in college basketball recruiting

Tyrese Maxey talks about UK’s class and being a leader

UK signee Tyrese Maxey will likely be one of the leaders on next season's basketball team, no matter who comes back from the current Wildcats' squad. He plays in this week's McDonald's All-American Game.
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UK signee Tyrese Maxey will likely be one of the leaders on next season's basketball team, no matter who comes back from the current Wildcats' squad. He plays in this week's McDonald's All-American Game.

With the 2019 college basketball recruiting cycle pretty much settled, the rankings are in, and — for the first time in more than a decade — there’s a program not named Kentucky or Duke at the top of the list.

The Memphis Tigers, after one full year of the Penny Hardaway experience, have the No. 1 class in the country, according to the long-running Recruiting Services Consensus Index, which posted its finalized rankings this week.

The RSCI is a composite score of rankings from four nationally recognized recruiting services: Rivals.com, 247Sports, ESPN and longtime analyst Van Coleman. The website, which has compiled such rankings for the past 22 recruiting cycles, looks at the Top 100 lists from each of those recruiting services, assigns a point value to each recruit based on his overall consensus ranking (100 points for the No. 1 recruit, 99 points for the No. 2 recruit, and so on), then adds the totals for all players in a class for the team’s final score.

Memphis came out on top this year, a drastic change from the recent past.

Since John Calipari became head coach at Kentucky in 2009, the Wildcats have had the No. 1 class in the RSCI rankings seven times. The other three times — all of which came in the past five years — it’s been Duke at the top of the list.

Hardaway — a former NBA superstar and one of the greatest players in Memphis history before that — managed to land the No. 1 recruit in this class, James Wiseman, who he coached in both high school and on the Nike circuit. He also locked down some of the other top prospects from the Memphis area, and, in recent weeks, landed commitments from a trio of star high school players with no ties to the area or his past teams.

“I’m excited for the city. I’m excited for the staff. I’m excited for the school. What we’ve done this summer has been amazing ... to be able to land the No. 1 recruiting class in the country is a blessing,” Hardaway said at a press conference this week. “I wanted this so badly for so many reasons, and to be able to do that in such a short period of time — I thank God for that opportunity.”

wisemanjeffries.jpg
James Wiseman, left, and DJ Jeffries both played for the Bluff City Legends — formerly Team Penny — on the Nike circuit last summer. Doug McSchooler

The Memphis recruiting class consists of five Top 100 prospects: Wiseman, New Jersey standout Precious Achiuwa (No. 14), California native and former Duke commitment Boogie Ellis (No. 36), Memphis-area star and former UK commitment DJ Jeffries (No. 45) and New York scorer Lester Quinones (No. 60), in addition to four-star Memphis standouts Malcolm Dandridge and Damion Baugh, who are right on the borderline of RSCI Top 100 status.

The commitments from Wiseman, Jeffries, Dandridge and Baugh came as no surprise. Over the past few weeks, Hardaway made waves by locking up commitments from Achiuwa, Ellis and Quinones, showing his brand is resonating nationally.

“I think everybody thought it was going to be a show when I took over and thought it was just going to be the local kids, and that I was going to have a problem recruiting around the country,” Hardaway said this week. “And they definitely underestimated what we could do. It’s really about relationships. If you call a kid, call the parents, and stay in tune with what’s going on — and they stay in tune with you, and you can show them how things are going to go, and they watch your style and they like it — then … you gotta feel that, ‘OK, this kid is really feeling us and wants to come and play for us.’ … I think we shocked a lot of people.”

Kentucky and Duke — the two recruiting mega-powers that have been accustomed to the top spot in the rankings — finished No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, behind the Tigers in this cycle. UK’s class includes Tyrese Maxey (No. 10), Kahlil Whitney (No. 11), Keion Brooks (No. 24), Johnny Juzang (No. 34) and Dontaie Allen (No. 92).

Hardaway and his Memphis coaching staff have obviously been paying attention to the recent recruiting pitches that helped UK and Duke bring in so many highly touted prospects in recent years.

In his press conference this week, Hardaway mentioned “positionless basketball,” the idea of five-star players sacrificing individual goals for the good of the team, used the term “iron sharpens iron,” alluded to a players-first program at Memphis — any of that sound familiar? — and also talked about a “brotherhood” approach to building this roster — that’s Duke’s buzzword of the moment — that originated with a “group chat” early in the cycle. (The Blue Devils built their superstar-laden 2018 class in much the same way).

Hardaway and his coaching staff — which includes former NBA player Mike Miller and, until recently, former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell — also features some aspects that aren’t present at UK or Duke (or just about anywhere else), and they’ve been using that as part of their pitch.

“We identify with the kids. And our swag is different,” Hardaway said. “We’re not just normal coaches. We’re players as well, along with being coaches.”

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How well they coach is still, for many, a major question mark. Hardaway took a roster with zero recruiting star power to the NIT in his first season. The talent level (and expectations) will be much, much higher this season.

If Memphis does well on the court, the Tigers are likely to continue to do well on the national recruiting trail. If they falter, those prospects that don’t have ties to the area are likely to take a more skeptical look.

So far, everything has gone according to Hardaway’s plan.

“I think to continue this, it’s going to be how well you mesh with what you have,” he said. “The top players are going to do the recruiting for you. And I think that’s what’s happened with all the top programs around the country — the kids kind of do the recruiting: ‘Hey, man, it’s great here. Man, they let you play. It’s a family atmosphere. It’s a brotherhood. It’s this, it’s that.’

“Plus … you have to win. Kids want to come to a winning program, as well.”

Top 10 classes for 2019

1. Memphis: James Wiseman is the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country and likely would have ended up at Kentucky if his former coach, Penny Hardaway, had not taken the Memphis job. The only other uncommitted, college-bound player in the RSCI Top 50 is RJ Hampton, who has narrowed his recruitment to Memphis, Kansas and Texas Tech and would give the Tigers a landslide margin in these rankings if he ends up joining Hardaway’s class. KU looks like the favorite, though Memphis could have a better shot if prized graduate transfer Rayjon Tucker keeps his name in the NBA Draft next week.

2. Kentucky: Another class with five Top 100 prospects should keep the Wildcats in the national championship picture next season. UK finished just behind Memphis in the rankings and could still theoretically move past the Tigers for the No. 1 spot, but it would take a reclassification and commitment from someone like N’Faly Dante, Cliff Omoruyi or Isaiah Todd, and — at least for the time being — that doesn’t seem likely. The Cats were No. 3 in the RSCI in 2015 (when Jamal Murray was severely under-ranked due to his status as a Canadian recruit and late reclassification), and UK has been either No. 1 or No. 2 in every other cycle under Calipari.

3. Duke: The Blue Devils’ latest class features major UK recruiting targets Vernon Carey (No. 5) and Matthew Hurt (No. 12), along with Wendell Moore (No. 25) and Cassius Stanley (No. 33).

4. Arizona: McDonald’s All-Americans Nico Mannion (No. 6) and Josh Green (No. 13) join Zeke Nnaji (No. 38) and Terry Armstrong (No. 56) as the Top 100 recruits in the Wildcats’ class.

5. Villanova: Jay Wright’s Wildcats made a recruiting splash with McDonald’s All-Americans Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (No. 15) and Bryan Antoine (No. 16), along with Justin Moore (No. 52) and Eric Dixon (No. 67).

6. Florida: The Gators landed McDonald’s All-Americans Scottie Lewis (No. 9) and Tre Mann (No. 22) to go along with Omar Payne (No. 46) and what should be a few impressive returnees.

7. Washington: Coach Mike Hopkins earned commitments from one player that he started recruiting as a Syracuse assistant — the No. 2-ranked Isaiah Stewart — and another from the Huskies’ backyard: Seattle native Jaden McDaniels (No. 7 overall). Washington also signed RaeQuan Battle (No. 78 overall). It’s worth noting that Van Coleman ranked Stewart as the No. 1 player in the class, and he might be the most college-ready prospect in America.

8. Southern Cal: The Trojans got Isaiah Mobley (No. 18), Onyeka Okongwu (No. 19) and Max Agbonkpolo (No. 54) for their first top-10 class in the 22-year history of the RSCI rankings.

9. North Carolina: No. 3-ranked Cole Anthony — the highest-rated guard in the class — leads UNC’s group, which also includes Armando Bacot (No. 23) and Anthony Harris (No. 70).

10. Ohio State: There were no McDonald’s All-Americans for the Buckeyes, but they did get a trio of top-50 prospects: DJ Carton (No. 31), EJ Liddell (No. 41) and Alonzo Gaffney (No. 47).

Up next: No. 11 — Georgia, No. 12 — Gonzaga, Nos. 13 — Louisville and Texas, Nos. 15 — Michigan State and Oregon.

RSCI Top 25 for 2019

  • 1. James Wiseman (Memphis)
  • 2. Isaiah Stewart (Washington)
  • 3. Cole Anthony (North Carolina)
  • 4. Anthony Edwards (Georgia)
  • 5. Vernon Carey (Duke)
  • 6. Nico Mannion (Arizona)
  • t7. RJ Hampton (uncommitted)
  • t7. Jaden McDaniels (Washington)
  • 9. Scottie Lewis (Florida)
  • 10. Tyrese Maxey (Kentucky)
  • 11. Kahlil Whitney (Kentucky)
  • 12. Matthew Hurt (Duke)
  • 13. Josh Green (Arizona)
  • 14. Precious Achiuwa (Memphis)
  • 15. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Villanova)
  • 16. Bryan Antoine (Villanova)
  • 17. Trendon Watford (LSU)
  • 18. Isaiah Mobley (Southern Cal)
  • 19. Onyeka Okongwu (Southern Cal)
  • t20. Samuell Williamson (Louisville)
  • t20. Josiah James (Tennessee)
  • 22. Tre Mann (Florida)
  • 23. Armando Bacot (North Carolina)
  • 24. Keion Brooks (Kentucky)
  • 25. Wendell Moore (Duke)
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