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Kentucky Basketball: Breaking down the Wildcats’ struggles on the court and in recruiting

A look at what’s wrong with Calipari, recruiting, and the state of Kentucky Basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Man, Saturday night was rough.

On Friday, I tweeted out that we as fans need to get ready for hot-take city after Kentucky didn’t land Zion Williamson, and had a very good chance of losing to Florida.

However, I didn’t think Zion would end up choosing Duke either.

So, with everything that’s going around, I thought I’d hop on to share some thoughts about several topics surrounding the basketball program.

Let’s break it down piece-by-piece:


For anyone who was hanging on to Calipari and Kentucky being the top destination for the best of the best in high school basketball, tonight was the end of that thought.

Calipari and Kentucky have been passed by Coach K and Duke as the “it” program. Duke is now what Kentucky was for the first six or so years of the Calipari at Kentucky era.

Losing Zion Williamson, a player that many seen as a near-lock to Kentucky, to Duke cements the Blue Devils as the top program in the recruiting world.

Looking at the 2018, 2017, and 2016 classes, in the recruiting battles where Kentucky and Duke were both heavily invested in a recruit, Duke has won the majority of those. In those classes, Duke is 7-2 versus Kentucky.

2016- Giles (Duke), Tatum (Duke), Bolden (Duke), Gabriel (Kentucky)

2017- Bagley (Duke), Knox (Kentucky)

2018- Barrett (Duke), Williamson (Duke), Reddish (Duke)

If you want to examine why Kentucky’s recruiting has went downhill, I think a lot of things factor in. First of all, losing Orlando Antigua HURT. Antigua is one of the best recruiters in college basketball, and losing him loosened Kentucky’s stranglehold as the top program in college basketball recruiting.

Kenny Payne is still an excellent recruiter, and while I think Joel Justus may eventually get there, he’s not on the level of Antigua. As for Tony Barbee, he isn’t widely known as a major force in the recruiting world.

Losing Antigua also opened the door for Jeff Capel, Coach K, and Duke to wedge themselves in and start going after top guys. Before Capel, Duke avoided a lot of the top guys that were projected to be one-and-done players but with Capel coming on to the Blue Devil staff and a change in recruiting philosophy, it was nearly perfect timing for the shift in power.

Additionally, there has been a rise in negative recruiting against Kentucky that I think—while not a major factor—has had somewhat of an effect. Opposing coaches have turned the platoon system into a negative (although it was successful) and the lack of development of Skal Labissiere while at Kentucky.

So how does Kentucky get back the top spot? I’m not sure. A strong finish to this season could help out, but Calipari and staff will either have to change some parts of their recruiting philosophy or maybe a staff change (can we please bring Antigua back?)... I am not sure because the Duke recruiting momentum seems to be overwhelming, especially if their experiment of having the top 3 recruits on the floor at the same time next year works out well.

Is all of this to say that Kentucky isn’t going to be good or won’t sign really good players? Absolutely not. Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, and Tyler Herro are really good players. Kentucky likely brings back Quade Green, P.J. Washington, and Nick Richards next year, along with Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha-Kileya Jones. Jarred Vanderbilt and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are also possibilities. Add Quickley, Johnson, Herro, and possibly some type of grad transfer to that core and Kentucky will have one of the top teams in the country next year.

And in 2019, Kentucky is the far-and-away leader for the #2 player in the class, James Wiseman... and no, don’t expect him to reclassify to 2018 (although I would LOVE to see that). Additionally, Kentucky is high on the list of #5 overall Matthew Hurt, #6 Bryan Antoine, #7 Scottie Lewis, and #11 Tyrese Maxey.

The loss of Williamson in 2018 absolutely does hurt though. I think if Kentucky adds him, they basically take that four-man class and roll into next year. With him out of the fold, I’m not sure where Kentucky goes. Really the only plausible recruit left on the board is Moses Brown, but Kentucky has been watching him for a while and never offered. Maybe they wanted to see with Zion before offering Brown, but Brown seems more like a project player who will need a year or two to develop before he blossoms. If Richards, Killeya-Jones, and Washington are back next year so that Brown doesn’t have to be an immediate contributor as a freshman, maybe that plan works, but for some reason, the coaching staff have had their eyes on Brown for some time but haven’t offered and I’m not certain as to the reason why.

Then there is also the possibility of a grad transfer, although Calipari has only taken one of those during his time at Kentucky. Usually there are at least a few really good players that use the grad transfer rule to come up from a mid-major for one final season. It will be interesting to see if Calipari decides to try to take one for next year or maybe see if a coaching change or other factor causes a player to re-open their recruitment. There is also a chance of a player reclassifying later on. Many have speculated that for Wiseman, but I think he probably stays in 2019. There will probably be some options there, but it remains to be seen how the Kentucky coaches will handle the situation.

So, have Calipari and Kentucky been passed by Duke? Yes, and I think the argument is dead after tonight. Does that mean Calipari and Kentucky can’t get really good players? No. Can Calipari and Kentucky regain their top spot? Yes, but not easily.

John Calipari

The people who think John Calipari should no longer be the coach at Kentucky absolutely puzzle me.

Calipari’s stretch at Kentucky has been one of the best among the country. I know the process of watching freshmen go through growing pains each year can be frustrating, especially early in the season, but the overwhelming majority of the time, things have come together by the end of the year and Kentucky was in contention to win a title by the time the tournament rolled around.

So, my honest question is this... Who else would you rather (realistically) have?

I can’t think of another coach that would realistically take the job right now that I would rather have leading the program.

Here’s the thing: One of these days, Calipari is going to leave Lexington, whether that be for an NBA job or retirement. Kentucky is going to have to find a replacement, and I have absolutely no clue who it would be. Shaka Smart, Sean Miller, Archie Miller, or maybe Billy Donovan leaves the NBA and says yes to the Wildcats after the third try. Nonetheless, fans will realize how special this run of success for Kentucky has been and hopefully will appreciate what we had.

So, needless to say, if you think getting rid of Calipari is the answer, I have some oceanfront property in this state for sale.

This Year’s Team

I know a lot of fans are ready to jump ship and write off this season. To a degree, I can understand. It has been very frustrating at times. Kentucky has played down to the wire against much less-talented teams, lost games they shouldn’t have, and have been hard to watch for stretches.

But this isn’t a team I would write off the books just yet. Kentucky had their first game tonight with a basically full roster (even though Jemarl Baker isn’t available). Jarred Vanderbilt will be a difference-maker as the season progresses and he gets into better game shape and gets more incorporated into the system. Right now, he just doesn’t have the conditioning to play long stretches, but that should improve substantially as the season goes.

But if there is one thing we have learned over the course of Cal’s tenure, it should be not to give up on a team in January. Both the 2010-2011 and 2013-2014 teams had similar records at this point in the season and each of those teams made the Final Four.

Do I think this team is a Final Four team? Right now, definitely not. But did anybody think those teams were going to end up as possible champions either? No, fans and analysts wrote them off as well.

Obviously those teams are different than this one. They had star players in Brandon Knight and Julius Randle, but I think this team has enough pieces that they can really surprise some teams come March. They could also lose in the first round.

The thing is, if you jump off now, don’t be trying to jump back on if things come together and this team really starts clicking. It’s too late then.

Tonight was a lot to unpack, and I am sure I’ll have more thoughts on all of this tomorrow and in the days ahead. All I can say for now though is this: don’t throw in the towel yet. There are still brighter days ahead.