LEXINGTON, Ky. — You might think it’s ridiculous to be looking ahead at a potential superteam for Kentucky basketball next season when this season hasn’t even started yet. But you’d be wrong, because some of the biggest pieces of that future juggernaut could fall into place this weekend.
Four top-10 prospects in the Class of 2018 will be at Rupp Arena on Friday night for Big Blue Madness, a laser-light extravaganza that serves in theory as the unofficial introduction of the current Wildcats to fans but works practically as the biggest recruiting event of the year. Point guard Immanuel Quickley, who is already committed to Kentucky, will be joined by fellow guard Darius Garland, small forward Zion Williamson and center Bol Bol.
We’re hearing the Wildcats are in great shape with Williamson and Bol — ranked No. 2 and 3 nationally in the 247Sports composite — and there is a decent chance the Cats end up signing those two and Quickley, plus one of three other 5-star guards: Garland, Keldon Johnson or Quentin Grimes. The latest buzz favors Johnson being the guy.
Oh, and there is a good chance that if Arizona loses top-40 recruit Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son, because of the FBI corruption case that is rocking college basketball, he’ll also end up at Kentucky. So if you’re keeping track, the Cats could sign a top-40 prospect at all five positions.
But that isn’t what makes a superteam. The reason Kentucky was nearly unbeatable in 2015 — you know, the team that won its first 38 games and, well, um, we’ll stop there — is those Wildcats combined a terrific freshman class with their best crop of returning players in the Calipari era.
Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns joined forces with 5-star sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, and juniors Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. Kentucky overwhelmed opponents with size, talent and depth, an endless supply of fresh, springy legs.
And soon, the Cats could do that again. Calipari has already compared this 2017-18 team to his 2013-14 group, when the Harrisons, Johnson, Lee, Julius Randle and James Young were all freshmen. They struggled mightily during the regular season, then clicked and ran all the way to the NCAA title game.
Only Randle and Young left for the NBA, and a superteam was born the next season. Now Kentucky has another huge crop of 5-star freshmen, and only one or two look like sure things to bolt for the NBA.
ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, formerly of DraftExpress, currently has only guard Hamidou Diallo and center Nick Richards projected to be picked in the 2018 NBA Draft. He has 5-star freshman Kevin Knox going in the 2019 lottery.
The hunch here is Knox will be one-and-done, but we’re less certain Richards bolts. Diallo is the one almost-sure bet. So let’s say all three leave after this season.
That would leave six former 5-star recruits returning to play with a loaded freshman class: point guard Quade Green, combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, small forward Jarred Vanderbilt and power forward P.J. Washington as sophomores and power forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones as juniors.
In that scenario, the Cats could have 10 former 5-star recruits, staggered across three classes, on the 2018-19 roster. Even if, say, Gilgeous-Alexander stays on his steep incline of improvement or Vanderbilt comes back from a foot injury in January and dominates, and one of those guys leaves, it’s still an embarrassment of riches.
There could be six first-round draft picks, maybe seven, on that team.
All signs point to Calipari’s perfect combination of youth and experience — all of it super-talented — coming together in Lexington next season. Each of his best teams (2010, 2012, 2015) mixed a scary good freshman class with a nucleus of returning players who could be the glue. That should be the case again a year from now.
So when these current Cats endure some early growing pains, for which Calipari is already warning fans to brace for, remember the long game. They might put it all together in time to play for a national championship, like the 2014 squad. But even if they don’t, the end of this season is just the beginning.
And by the way, a scary thought: This whole what-if exercise was built around the idea that R.J. Barrett, the Canadian scoring machine and No. 1 overall recruit in 2018, will pick Duke over Kentucky. That’s been the recent buzz, but you know Calipari will not concede that battle.
Should the Wildcats land Barrett, God help the rest of college basketball next season.
Previewing the 2017-18 Wildcats
- Point guard Quade Green “better than I thought”
- Teammates: Diallo can dominate … if he wants to
- Wenyen Gabriel is a fighter, and UK needs him to be
- What the Wildcats will miss while Vanderbilt is out
- Calipari sees 2014 Cats, good and bad, in this team
- Full 6,500-word John Calipari preseason Q&A
- Players vote on Cats’ best dunker and best shooter