NASHVILLE — Kentucky cleaned up on the recruiting trail again. The Wildcats are the conference favorites again. They’ll compete for a national championship again.
As Alabama coach Avery Johnson told Kentucky.com‘s Jerry Tipton this summer, John Calipari’s team is “Michael Jackson,” and the rest of the league is trying to avoid being “The Jackson 13.”
At Wednesday’s basketball media day, the question was asked dozens of times: Is Kentucky all alone at the top? Again??
On the court, probably. But in terms of recruiting, the gap might be closing. An influx of name-brand coaches — including Johnson — has led to an influx of Top 100 recruits at schools other than UK.
Mississippi State’s Ben Howland landed five Top 100 players as part of the nation’s No. 9 overall class, per 247Sports.com.
Bruce Pearl brought the country’s No. 23 player, Mustapha Heron, to Auburn. Billy Kennedy brought the No. 61 player, Robert Williams, and the No. 65 player, J.J. Caldwell, to Texas A&M (though Caldwell is ineligible to play this season). Johnson nabbed Braxton Key, the No. 57 player, for the Crimson Tide.
There are several more 4-star freshmen on SEC campuses, and most of them will see lots of playing time.
“The only thing it does is raise the height of our league,” said LSU coach Johnny Jones, who brought in the nation’s No. 1 player, Ben Simmons, last year. “Kentucky’s done an exceptional job, year in and year out, of getting those guys, and I think to be competitive you have to get those guys, or you have to have 4-year guys.”
Many programs don’t have a strong group of upperclassmen, so the recruiting pitch is easy.
“Playing time, playing time, playing time,” Howland said.
The Bulldogs will start “two or three” freshman from that highly ranked incoming class, something that Howland said he’s never had to do before. The “Top 100” tag makes his team a target, he added.
“When they’re playing against juniors and seniors for the first time, it’s hard,” Howland said. “Especially when guys come in ‘Top 100,’ guys can’t wait to kill that kid. ‘You’re supposed to be hot? Can’t wait to stick it to you!'”
What about Kentucky, though? Calipari has been able to win consistently with freshman-heavy teams.
“They are getting four or five of the Top 15 players every year,” Howland. “And those Top 15 guys are really, really incredible. I think he got way ahead of the curve with his philosophy. I think it’s been brilliant.”
It won’t take four or five of those players to turn another SEC program around, though. Ask Calipari.
“The greatest thing about basketball: You don’t need the cavalry,” Calipari said. “You need a couple guys.”
One reporter noted, with that logic, Calipari could stop hoarding all the 5-star players.
“Well,” he said, smiling, “we need the cavalry.”
We came up with a short list of notable SEC freshmen not wearing Kentucky blue this season. Get familiar with the following players:
Mustapha Heron, Auburn point guard
Nation’s No. 23 overall player • 6-foot-5, 215 lbs. • Hometown: Waterbury, Conn. • Opposing coach’s scouting report: “Mustapha is a pro athlete who has a great motor, great toughness and great competitiveness.” (Ben Howland, Mississippi State)
Schnider Herard, Mississippi State center
Nation’s No. 47 overall player • 6-foot-10, 250 lbs. • Hometown: Plano, Texas • Opposing coach’s scouting report: “He’s a guy that takes up a lot of space. He’s an underrated passer. I like big guys, also, that make free throws. He’s a good free-throw shooter.” (Avery Johnson, Alabama)
Braxton Key, Alabama small forward
Nation’s No. 57 overall player • 6-foot-8, 220 lbs. • Hometown: Nashville • Opposing coach’s scouting report: “I don’t know what role he’s gonna play, but I do know he brings really good size and versatility for his position. I think he’s really intelligent. He seems like a great kid.” (Mike Smith, Florida)
Robert Williams, Texas A&M small forward
Nation’s No. 61 overall player • 6-foot-9, 237 lbs. • Hometown: Vivian, La. • Opposing coach’s scouting report: “He’s a great shot-blocker. Can really run the floor. Can really score. Put the ball on the deck, as well, and he has great versatility. So I think he’s gonna be a great addition to Texas A&M.” (Johnny Jones, LSU)
Other notable non-Kentucky freshmen
- Mario Kegler, Mississippi State small forward (ranked No. 52)
- Tyree Crump, Georgia point guard (ranked No. 75)
- Eli Wright, Mississippi State shooting guard (ranked No. 80)
- Jared Harper, Auburn point guard (ranked No. 92)
- Lamar Peters, Mississippi State point guard (ranked No. 96)
- Tyson Carter, Mississippi State shooting guard (ranked No. 97)