It is true that Kentucky basketball boasts the No. 1 recruiting class for the 2023-24 season.
Given what we’ve learned from recent events, it is also true that the success of next season might have as much to do with holdovers as A-list newcomers.
To that end, early indicators show a mixed bag.
It’s a foregone conclusion that talented freshman Cason Wallace will enter the NBA Draft. The 6-foot-4 guard is a potential lottery pick. Reports say fellow freshman Chris Livingston will test the NBA waters with the intention of remaining in the draft.
No one expects veterans Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin to return. Tshiebwe could pull a surprise. A terrific college player, his skills don’t project to the current NBA game. Of the two, Toppin might actually be the better pro prospect.
Going by Monday’s reports, point guard Sahvir Wheeler is placing his name in the transfer portal as a graduate transfer. That should come as no surprise. Daimion Collins is also expected to enter the portal in hopes of returning to his home state of Texas to be closer to his family. Collins’ father passed away right before the start of this past season.
CJ Fredrick is eligible to return for at least one year, maybe two. That would certainly help. The Cincinnati native has been cursed by injuries since he transferred to UK from Iowa. Those ailments affected his production this year. A 47.4 percent three-point shooter his final year as a Hawkeye, Fredrick shot 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this year. He’s a better player than he’s shown so far in blue.
Then there’s Antonio Reeves. After Kentucky’s 75-69 loss to Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Reeves hinted that he hoped to return for another season. Never mind his 1-for-15 shooting numbers on that Sunday in Greensboro. Reeves has a year in John Calipari’s system plus a year of SEC basketball under his belt. Having the shooter/scorer return for one more bite of the apple would be a plus.
The expectation is that the freshman duo of Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyenso will both return. Thiero averaged 9.7 minutes over 20 games last season; Onyenso 6.9 over 16. Both have high ceilings. Each needs seasoning.
Lance Ware, named a team captain before the NCAA Tournament, has at least another year of eligibility remaining. With freshman Aaron Bradshaw’s arrival in the fall, plus Onyenso expected to assume a larger role, Ware’s future appears uncertain.
What next season’s Kentucky needs is a veteran presence to balance out a green roster. Perhaps that arrives through the transfer portal. It appears there will be roster spots open, if Calipari chooses to fill them.
Consider that, according to ESPN, this year’s Final Four of Miami (Fla.), Connecticut, Florida Atlantic and San Diego State is the first since 1979 to not include a single former McDonald’s All-American on any of the teams’ rosters.
Consider also that the Final Four will not feature a single player who was ranked higher than 37th by the recruiting rankings coming out of high school. Not just a single freshman, but a single player.
While it is true that the extra COVID year afforded student-athletes has made for more “super seniors,” thus making teams older, the trend of players with on-the-job training capturing titles began long before COVID. Look at Villanova’s two titles in 2016 and 2018, as well as North Carolina in 2017 and Virginia in 2019.
The last outfit led by absolute college beginners to win the NCAA Tournament was Duke in 2015. The Blue Devils featured rookies Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen on Mike Krzyzewski’s roster.
Could the heralded freshman class of Justin Edwards, DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Robert Dillingham and Reed Sheppard buck the trend and win it all for Kentucky in 2023-24?
But not without some help.