How did Kentucky basketball rediscover its recruiting swagger? Wildcats mailbag

Peach Jam is under way, with Nike’s grassroots championship tournament hosting most of Kentucky’s top high school targets this week, so there were a lot of recruiting questions when we called for mailbag submissions. Plenty of intrigue about the upcoming season, too, as the Wildcats are less than three weeks away from providing a sneak peek with four exhibition games in the Bahamas. And since the schedule is still not yet complete, you also had a few inquiries about potential home-and-homes on the horizon. Spoiler: That’s a fun exercise, but don’t get your immediate hopes up.

There were so many questions, we couldn’t possibly answer them all in a single installment. We’ll tackle some of those UK football questions and existential hoop thoughts in a sequel. For now, Part I of this mammoth mailbag:

What’s your confidence in order from highest to lowest we get commitments from DJ Wagner, Justin Edwards and Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso? — Adam U. and Connor R.

That would be the No. 1, 4 and 22 players in the Class of 2023, respectively. And right now, I’d bet on Kentucky getting all three. There’s really not much separation in my level of confidence. Onyenso is visiting Kentucky right now and could be reclassified and enrolled before the team leaves for the Bahamas in August. I expect Edwards to announce for the Wildcats over Tennessee on Monday night. And the word out of Lexington is — as it has been all along — that Wagner will ultimately pick Kentucky too. Of note: Rapper, Kentucky fan and longtime John Calipari friend Drake has a Nike sub-label called NOCTA, which is launching a new basketball collection, and is featuring Wagner in its promotional materials. Very interesting. Probably a coincidence. Calipari has a real shot at surpassing Duke to land the No. 1 recruiting class again with a throwback monster haul like his first few years at UK.

What has happened with Ron Holland? Have we cut ties with him? — Jake A.

Not at all. He’s just a major priority for Arkansas, and the Razorbacks are a formidable foe on the recruiting trail under Eric Musselman (and in the age of NIL). Holland is a beast, ranked No. 11 in 2023, a high-motor forward who affects the game on both ends and is coming off a really strong FIBA World Cup with USA Basketball’s gold medal-winning U17 team. Holland had a really good visit to Lexington in June, days after his visit to Fayetteville, and many thought Kentucky might’ve surged ahead in his recruitment. But the Hogs, who have been to back-to-back Elite Eights and sent Moses Moody (14th pick in 2021) and Jaylin Williams (34th pick in 2022) to the NBA, have not stopped selling Holland on being a star there. That pitch landed Arkansas three five-stars in 2022, so it’s clear Musselman can win these high-level recruitments. All of that said, I’m told Kentucky has not given up hope on landing Holland and the staff has not stopped pursuing him.

Where would you put your confidence level in UK getting (the four recruits addressed in the two previous questions) and Aaron Bradshaw? — Zach B.

Bradshaw is an interesting one. The five-star center, a 7-footer who is top-15 in the class, seemed like a lock to Kentucky with a commitment coming any day. Then two weeks passed and nothing happened. Now word comes that he’s pushing back his commitment, likely taking a couple more college visits, and still hoping for a G League contract offer. So what gives? His mother was unable to make Bradshaw’s official visit to Kentucky and she is hesitant to let him make a final decision without a little more information. Obviously that pause gives some reason to worry whether the Wildcats can close the deal, but the vibe in Lexington is still that he’ll ultimately settle on Kentucky. Landing Onyenso would provide a very good safety net in case Bradshaw goes elsewhere or opts for the pro route. My gut says he ends up a Cat, though.

Would Kentucky recruit Bradshaw knowing he could commit and then leave to the G League? — Evan D.

Would and has. They know that’s a real possibility but believe they can sell him on the value of exposure and high-level NBA prep at Kentucky versus the relative anonymity of the G League. Did anyone think at all about Jaden Hardy, a former top-five recruit, over the last year while he was in that league? With big NIL bucks now available in college ball, it’s a bold choice to go off the radar as an elite prospect. Still, Kentucky understands that Bradshaw might go that route and has worked on contingencies. Taking Onyenso qualifies as pretty good insurance.

Is it possible for Kentucky to land both Kingsley and Bradshaw or is it one or the other? Feels like they play similarly and would compete a lot with each other for time. — Phillip P.

Kentucky would like to, and thinks it can, land both. Calipari has coached a team with Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee on it. He could probably make that work.

I read about the issues Camden High School has run into. Any chance it affects Wagner’s or Bradshaw’s eligibility to play next year? — Kev

Doubt it. As long as the players went to an actual school and got certifiable grades and test scores that are required, I don’t think the NCAA cares whether they were playing high school basketball where they were zoned to play high school basketball.

What do you think has been the primary reason for Kentucky’s sudden resurgence as a recruiting powerhouse (specifically in regards to top-10 kids)? — Chris D.

It’s hard to attribute to just one thing, but if I had to pick one, it’s this: Calipari being hell-bent on returning to the top of the mountain. Hiring his old ace, Orlando Antigua, and bringing in Chicago grassroots-connected Chin Coleman last summer, then tapping Texas-tied and MOKAN Elite-connected KT Turner this summer were big moves to leverage longtime relationships with talent-rich programs. I also think having a clear vision and sound plan for dealing with NIL has been a major boost to recruiting top guys who want to know they’ll be supported in that area. But it all starts with Calipari, who will go down as one of the all-time great recruiters. If he’d eased off the gas in recent years, he’s mashing it again now. Word is, Calipari is taking a much more active, hands-on approach to recruiting lately. The best example of that is Edwards, where Cal has taken over the day-to-day process of pursuing a top-five prospect whom Tennessee was about to swoop in and steal. Edwards has talked openly about what an impact it made when Calipari jumped in and prioritized him.

We have recently seen Cal change up his recruiting style in terms of offering recruits way earlier than he used to. What do you think we see next, a change to a more modern offensive philosophy/an offensive coordinator or the GM role that you’ve mentioned and Duke formalized? — Aidan L. and Michael B.

I’m not sure Calipari is ever going to make a drastic change to his core belief about the best way to play basketball. But if he has all the best players, his style works great. So I think most of his tweaks have been and will be about getting back on top in the talent-acquisition and development game. He’s made smart changes in adding an NIL-focused staffer before really anyone and now adjusting his approach to the strength and conditioning role to hopefully minimize injury and maximize the ability of the elite athletes he coaches. He’s assembled a strong recruiting staff and really dialed back into recruiting himself. The next big thing that makes the most sense to me would be that GM-type role. Put somebody over the whole operation like an NBA general manager and just be hyper-organized with all the moving parts it takes now to run a really successful college program. To me, that’s a no-brainer at this point. I believe Calipari has at least considered that possibility recently, and I could see it happening before long.

Any rumors out of practice regarding the development of Adou Thiero? He’s got an intriguing physical profile and all of the potential in the world, but wondering if he’ll make an impact this season. — Trevor P.

I agree that he’s totally fascinating. Son of a WNBA Draft pick and former top-100 recruit who played for Calipari at Memphis. Huge growth spurt his senior year to become a legit prospect. Now 6-foot-6, still actively growing, experiencing growth pains, with doctors speculating he could get as tall as 6-11. The other really interesting thing is that he’s not just all lanky and spindly after growing a ton in a short time. He’s pretty built and looks very athletic. He’s a solid ballhandler, good passer, willing defender and rebounder. The shot is kind of broken right now, but that matters less and less if he grows into a giant. My hunch is he won’t be a significant factor this season but certainly could be next year and beyond. The real question is whether he’ll still be a guard or … a center by then.


Cason Wallace could have a major impact on winning as a freshman. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

Tell us everything you know about Cason Wallace. — Mark G.

Well, if this is the Mark G. I think it is, fellow alum of Richardson High School in Texas, then you know more than me. But for the rest: Wallace is a winning player. He’s built like a linebacker and plays with the maturity of someone much older. He doesn’t care about scoring but can if you need buckets. Loves defense, leans into his identity as a lockdown guy, and makes two or three plays each game that elicit a yelp. Chase-down block specialist and a real do-whatever-it-takes guy. Coaches are already raving about his maturity and approach, which combined with his impressive raw materials makes him a future lottery pick, I think.

How unique is Daimion Collins’ situation as a McDonald’s All-American who did not play his freshman year, did not go to the draft and did not transfer? — Cole H.

Not as unique as you might imagine. It is unusual at Kentucky, where Calipari’s burger boys (as you note) typically either star right away and bolt for the NBA or get stuck on the bench and transfer right away. But just from last year’s McDonald’s All-American game, there’s a pretty long list of guys who played sparingly as freshmen in college and did not turn pro or change schools: Jackson Grant (6.5 minutes per game at Washington), Nathan Bittle (6.9 mpg at Oregon), Kobe Bufkin (10.6 mpg at Michigan), Hunter Sallis (13.6 mpg at Gonzaga) and Nolan Hickman (17.2 mpg at Gonzaga). So Collins, who averaged just 7.4 minutes per game for the Cats, is hardly alone.

But as the No. 16 prospect in the 2021 class, he was the highest ranked of all those guys who stayed put. That’s thanks largely to the fact that Collins and his family were realistic about what a jump in size and competition he was going to face leaving a tiny Texas town and entering the SEC as a 185-pound power forward. Collins, with his 43-inch vertical and 7-4 wingspan, could easily develop into a first-round NBA Draft pick, but there was no delusion that he was a likely one-and-done candidate. The plan was always to take however much time he needed to develop. Now over 200 pounds, Collins says there was never a plan to leave UK: “None at all. I knew once I committed here at Kentucky, I was fully committed, so I didn’t have (any) interest in transferring.”

Who do you think (or hearing) will make the biggest leap from last year, including transfers? — Mark F.

Who do you think, based on what you’re hearing behind the scenes, has a Tyler Herro-type surprising Bahamas performance coming this time around? — Dylan M.

Great question(s), and I’d say Collins is in that conversation. But it’s got to be Jacob Toppin, because I genuinely believe he could go from a three-year role player to maybe a starring role on a national title contender. He’s a superb athlete who has bulked up and improved his jump shot this offseason and, by all accounts, is playing with supreme confidence after spending the summer training with his brother, Obi (a famous late bloomer), and other NBA players in L.A. while going through the pre-draft process. His per-40 averages last season — 14.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 blocks — and shooting numbers (57.1 effective field-goal percentage, 74.5 percent at the line) are encouraging. And the guy who casually threw down a 360-degree dunk at Auburn last season is drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff.

If you could make a realistic (still has a few buy games but not overboard on them like usual) optimal schedule for Kentucky basketball, what would it look like? — Kyle E.

I’d ditch the CBS Sports Classic and add a home-and-home with North Carolina. I’d schedule another home-and-home with Indiana (for nostalgia) or Gonzaga (for the spectacle). I’d stay in the Champions Classic — meaning Duke, Kansas or Michigan State on a neutral court to start each season — and obviously the SEC-Big 12 Challenge to get a home or road game against the likes of Kansas, Texas, Baylor or West Virginia every year. Keep the annual Louisville game, schedule Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Morehead and Bellarmine every year and fill the rest with cupcakes.

If Cal called you today and put you in charge of picking one home-and-home series for basketball starting this year, what would be your top five choices? — Sam G.

1. North Carolina
2. Gonzaga
3. Indiana
4. UCLA
5. Arizona

With Kentucky’s non-conference schedule nearing completion, are there any big-time home-and-homes being discussed? I know there have been rumors of Gonzaga and Virginia in the past. — Lane S.

Calipari and Mark Few are buddies, and they’ve definitely discussed playing a game or getting a series multiple times in recent years. I think it came pretty close to happening during the 2020 season when COVID-19 issues turned scheduling into, “Hey, you wanna play this weekend?” I do think that series could actually materialize one day, but it doesn’t appear likely that will happen this season. Right now, it looks like these are your marquee non-con games for 2022-23: Michigan State on Nov. 15 at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, Michigan on Dec. 4 in London, UCLA on Dec. 17 at the CBS Sports Classic in New York, Louisville on Dec. 31 at Rupp Arena, Kansas on Jan. 28 at Rupp Arena.

What coaching rival, past or present, does Cal actually dislike the most? And why is it Jim Calhoun? — John G.

Somebody replied to this one that it’s John Chaney, but it isn’t. Those two became real friends after the famous “I’ll kill you!” press conference. It probably is Calhoun. At least from his past. In his present, I’m guessing it’s Bruce Pearl.

Best My Morning Jacket song and album? — Jeff L.

Pretty hard to argue with “One Big Holiday,” which is epic, but I might go with “Golden” for best song. Those are both on “It Still Moves,” to which I think I’d give a slight edge over the hugely popular “Z,” from which I also really love “Wordless Chorus” and “Gideon” and “Off the Record,” all among my favorite MMJ songs.

Top five movies to pass the time during the dog days? — Tyler S.

I’ll go with movies from my childhood to evoke those old summer break vibes: “The Goonies,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Stand by Me,” “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “The Sandlot.”

(Top photo of John Calipari:  Kim Klement / USA Today)

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