EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari could stop right now and have a terrific 2018 recruiting class. Of course, stopping with some elite talent isn’t how he and Kentucky basketball piled up eight consecutive top-2 classes nationally.
So Calipari presses on, in pursuit of 5-star small forward Zion Williamson and (sort of) 5-star center Moses Brown, the No. 2 and No. 17 prospects, respectively, in the 247Sports composite. The Wildcats inked three top guards — No. 10 Immanuel Quickley, No. 11 Keldon Johnson and No. 35 Tyler Herro — in the early signing period.
“Their current class is already very, very good,” said Evan Daniels, national recruiting director at Scout.com and 247. “They have three really good guys, and if you add Zion and Moses, that’s even better. That’s a great class.”
Only Oregon, Kansas and Duke have higher-ranked hauls right now. So how will the Wildcats finish in the spring?
Williamson, the big fish, is a show-stopping dunk machine who is already gracing national magazine covers and captivating YouTube audiences. He took official visits to Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina earlier this fall. Home-state Clemson is considered a serious contender to land him, too.
But it has been awhile since Williamson or his inner circle shared anything significant about his college decision.
“I think we’re all in the same holding pattern,” Daniels said. “I don’t think Zion knows what he wants to do yet, so it’s hard for us to know. Clemson gets a lot of buzz right now, but I don’t think anyone really knows who is leading.”
Brown, a 7-footer from New York who is rated the No. 2 center in the country, took official visits to Maryland (his perceived favorite), UCLA and Florida State in October. Then Calipari and UK assistant Tony Barbee visited him on Nov. 5 and expressed interest — but did not extend a scholarship offer (and still haven’t).
Daniels puts it this way: “They’re dabbling with Moses Brown. They would like to add a big man to this class — I think that’s evident — but the 2018 class hasn’t provided a lot of options, really for anyone. So Moses Brown is someone they’re dabbling with but still haven’t gone in and said, ‘Hey, we want you.’ ”
So is there another big man out there Calipari and the Cats might want?
“There is not,” Daniels said. “No, this is the worst post-player class that I’ve ever evaluated.”
Gulp. So it’s Brown or bust, unless a graduate transfer becomes available. But is Brown a Kentucky-level player or would he be a reach? Full disclosure: I watched him play a game on the Under Armour circuit this spring and was not impressed, although folks who’ve seen him more tell me that was an off day for Brown.
“He certainly has elite talent,” Daniels said. “He’s been up and down from a production standpoint and consistency standpoint. But Moses Brown has ability. He’s got good size, length, hands, touch. He can block shots. He just hasn’t been consistent with his motor.”
While that might be a red flag, it also might mean Kentucky is a perfect fit for Brown, who told me in April that Calipari compared him to Willie Cauley-Stein (who was a three-year project) and Anthony Davis (who does at least share a physical resemblance with Brown).
Five-star freshman PJ Washington seemed to be struggling with a motor problem this season and then Calipari and assistant Kenny Payne, the big man whisperer, helped him lose 15 pounds in 17 days and Washington went off for 20 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks on Saturday.
“They just want me to accomplish my goals,” Brown said in the spring. “They want to push me as hard as I can go. They’re telling me, ‘We’re going to put you in the gym, you’re going to work hard and then we’re going to put you on the stage and you gotta play ball.’ ”
If Williamson and Brown end up sharing the stage in Lexington, Kentucky would no doubt have a super team on its hands.
ESPN’s latest ranking of the top 2018 NBA Draft prospects has only three Wildcats in first-round range: No. 10 Kevin Knox, No. 21 Hamidou Diallo and No. 28 Nick Richards. If only those three leave, Kentucky would return six former 5-star recruits: 6-foot point guard Quade Green, 6-6 combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-7 forward PJ Washington, 6-9 forward Jarred Vanderbilt, 6-9 forward Wenyen Gabriel and 6-10 forward Sacha Killeya-Jones.
If that happened and they signed Brown and Williamson, the Cats would have 10 former 5-star recruits and 13 former top-100 players on the 2018-19 roster.
“Even without Zion, depending on who comes back, they should be in great shape,” Daniels said. “But adding a player like Zion would be big. That team would be ridiculous.”