The transfer portal closes now. Where UK basketball stands, and what’s next for Mark Pope.

College basketball coaches, rejoice. Your long offseason nightmare is over.

Well, almost.

There’s likely to be a collective sigh of relief from college campuses around the country at the moment the clock turns from 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to midnight Thursday — the designated time that the NCAA transfer portal will close for basketball players mulling a change of scenery ahead of the 2024-25 season.

Any fan of the sport who has followed the comings and goings of the portal over the past few weeks has probably run across a quote or two or more — some anonymous, some not — from coaches lamenting the state of things in college basketball, which has been home to a circus of roster movement.

Even the current king of college basketball — UConn head coach Dan Hurley — referenced the coming challenges just minutes after leading the Huskies to back-to-back national championships a little more than three weeks ago

“Unfortunately we’re going to head into the portal, like everybody else now. I’ve been dreading this moment,” Hurley said that night. “But now we’re here.”

The two-time national champ flashed his signature smirk and let out a laugh as he delivered that line, but he made it clear he’d much rather play ball than play the games of the portal.

To pretty much every coach in the country, the 45-day transfer window — the portal actually opened the day after Selection Sunday, illogical timing that could be reformed in future offseasons — is a constant source of madness and often despair, a grind of missing out on top targets and unexpectedly losing current players, with the occasional recruiting victory thrown in.

For a few, however — and Kentucky’s Mark Pope is at the top of this list — the portal has basically been the only potential source of talent amid major roster-building efforts.

While most coaches have approached this period with a sense of dread, Pope used the word “exhilarating” in an interview with the Herald-Leader last week to describe the process of sorting through the possibilities, making first contact and ultimately building relationships with possible future Wildcats as he puts together his first UK basketball roster.

“It’s pretty special, man,” Pope said. “I can’t tell you how excited we are about doing this.”

Kentucky’s new coach didn’t have much choice but to adopt that mentality.

At that point in time, freshman recruit Collin Chandler was the only officially announced player for next season. A little more than a week later, the Wildcats’ projected 2024-25 roster was at nine players.

And more are on the way.

In addition to securing incoming recruits Chandler and Travis Perry — both will be freshman guards next season — the UK coaching staff has picked up commitments from seven transfers in the past week or so: Drexel forward Amari Williams, San Diego State guard Lamont Butler, Oklahoma guard Otega Oweh, Wake Forest forward Andrew Carr, Oklahoma State center Brandon Garrison, Dayton guard Koby Brea and West Virginia guard Kerr Kriisa.

That’s already a well-rounded roster, but a few spots remain open. Here’s what to look for next as Pope puts the finishing touches on the 2024-25 Kentucky basketball team.

New Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena on April 14. Silas Walker/
New Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena on April 14. Silas Walker/

What’s next for UK basketball?

An important note: Just because players can’t jump into the transfer portal beyond 11:59 p.m. Wednesday doesn’t mean they can’t commit to new schools after that date. There is no firm deadline for when such players can give a commitment for next season, as long as they have already officially entered into the portal. (And roughly 2,000 college players have made that move.)

So, the madness will go on for a few more weeks. But college coaches now at least know who won’t be jumping ship this offseason. For Pope and Kentucky, of course, this is irrelevant. When John Calipari exited Lexington for Arkansas last month, the entirety of his existing roster at Kentucky departed, too. All 10 scholarship players with remaining eligibility either entered the portal or the NBA draft.

Only Adou Thiero has kept UK on his list, and the chances of his return are somewhere between slim and none. Of the six high school recruits that Calipari had for next season, only Kentucky Mr. Basketball Travis Perry stuck with the program. Three followed Calipari to Arkansas (Boogie Fland, Karter Knox and Billy Richmond), while Jayden Quaintance picked Arizona State and Somto Cyril ended up at Georgia.

So Pope was starting out with 13 available scholarships. He’s still got four spots left, and — while he might not use all of those openings — he’s definitely not done adding to the roster. Who else will join the Wildcats?

The surprise addition of Garrison — a former McDonald’s All-American center — all but ends UK’s chances with Utah State’s Great Osobor, who was actually on campus at the time of Garrison’s commitment. Awkward.

Osobor was set to leave town Wednesday, with additional trips scheduled for Louisville, Texas Tech and Washington (where his former coach, Danny Sprinkle, has taken over). Osobor is a top talent, but his decision to go on all of these visits — a process that will stretch to the end of next week — coupled with Garrison’s eagerness to give an immediate commitment left UK with little choice.

Osobor also has just one season of remaining eligibility, while Garrison has three years left. There doesn’t seem to be room in Pope’s offense for three big men who aren’t 3-point threats — Garrison and Williams made a combined one 3-pointer last season; Osobor was 3-for-14 from deep — but still deserve considerable playing time. So, scratch Osobor off the target list.

Jaxson Robinson was BYU’s leading scorer this past season, and he could follow Mark Pope to Kentucky. Scott Sewell/USA TODAY NETWORK
Jaxson Robinson was BYU’s leading scorer this past season, and he could follow Mark Pope to Kentucky. Scott Sewell/USA TODAY NETWORK

What Kentucky did need going into transfer portal deadline day was a facilitating point guard that can make things go on the offensive end. Butler is a lockdown perimeter defender, Brea is the top 3-point shooter in the portal, and Chandler and Perry are intriguing talents, but none of those players checked that box.

Three potential additions had been tied to Kentucky in recent days: Utah’s Deivon Smith, Minnesota’s Elijah Hawkins and Oklahoma State’s Javon Small.

UK had hoped to host Smith — the Pac-12 leader in assists last season, and a 40.8% 3-point shooter — for a visit over the weekend, but potential transcript issues postponed that trip. Smith has already played for three schools over the past four seasons, and another move could bring difficulties with credits transferring. He is now looking elsewhere.

Hawkins, who committed Texas Tech on Tuesday, and Small were never booked for visits to Lexington.

Instead, the Cats ended up with another surprise commitment: West Virginia point guard Kerr Kriisa, who spent three years at Arizona and averaged 11.0 points and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 42.4% from 3-point range for the Mountaineers this past season.

Now that Brea and Kriisa are committed, it’s unlikely that any additional visitors will be on UK’s campus this week.

The Herald-Leader was told last week that Villanova guard TJ Bamba — a career 38.0% 3-point shooter over four seasons — was a possibility as a weekend visitor to Lexington, but that trip never happened. Oregon now looks like the favorite there.

A player of definite interest is BYU’s Jaxson Robinson, who was the Cougars’ leading scorer under Pope last season — as well as the Big 12’s sixth man of the year — and remains a major Kentucky target in this cycle.

Robinson — a 6-7 guard who has made 142 3-pointers at a 34.9% rate over the past two seasons — is still in the NBA draft, though he also put his name in the transfer portal this week. If he sticks in college — which sounds to be the most likely outcome — the fifth-year player will have plenty of suitors, but Kentucky remains confident in its status as the favorite.

The deadline to pull out of the NBA draft is May 29, and UK will have a spot on the roster waiting for Robinson, whenever he makes his final stay-or-go decision.

The bulk of Pope’s first team has already come together. More moves should happen soon. And once the paperwork settles by the end of the day Thursday, everyone should know who is (and isn’t) officially in the portal.

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