The Big Ten has met the enemy — and it’s Kentucky

·4 min read

After Kentucky announced Thursday that John Calipari’s raid of the Illinois coaching staff had secured the services of assistants Orlando Antigua and Ronald “Chin” Coleman away from Brad Underwood’s team, Fighting Illini backers were fighting mad.

Official word Wednesday that former Iowa guard CJ Fredrick had chosen to return to play in the state where he starred in high school hoops for Covington Catholic by transferring to UK left Hawkeyes fans beyond salty.

In the transfer portal and on the coaching carousel, UK has become public enemy number one to various Big Ten fan bases.

Yet even after a week when Calipari lured not one but two assistants away from one Big Ten school and gained the services of a two-year starter from another university in that league, men’s basketball is not even close to being the UK program raining the most pain on the Midwest’s signature college sports conference.

Just from working the transfer portal in the current school year, Mark Stoops and the UK football program have feasted at the Big Ten’s expense. The Wildcats have so far added:

Nebraska’s most gifted offensive playmaker, flanker Wan’Dale Robinson;

Penn State’s top backup quarterback, Will Levis;

And two mostly unproven but promising players from Michigan State in the form of linebacker Luke Fulton and wide receiver Tre’Von Morgan.

If that weren’t enough damage, Stoops also lured respected Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle to Lexington.

One surmises there are many a Big Ten head football coach and athletics director who rue the day that Stoops, the Youngstown, Ohio, product with deep ties to the Buckeye State, was hired as UK head man before the 2013 season.

Ably boosted by fellow Youngstown product and ace recruiter Vince Marrow, Stoops and troops have had so much recruiting success in Ohio that sportswriters began writing articles about “The Big Ten’s Kentucky problem” and “The Big Ten killer.”

Some of the foundational pieces in Stoops’ reconstruction of Kentucky football — running back Benny Snell (Westerville), safety Mike Edwards (Cincinnati), current standout offensive tackle Darian Kinnard (Cleveland), to name three — were wooed out of Ohio.

UK’s recruiting emphasis in Ohio has not been a problem for Ohio State but it has hurt Big Ten programs down the rung from the Buckeyes — such as Michigan State — who have long relied on Ohio to build their rosters.

There’s a reason MSU made a spirited run with a lucrative offer to try to hire Marrow away from Kentucky in 2020.

Even though Stoops and UK have not been as reliant on Ohio for signees in recent classes as they were early in the head coach’s tenure, Kentucky is slated to have 22 scholarship players from the Buckeye State on its roster in 2021.

At least five of those Ohio products — safety Tyrell Ajian (Mansfield); offensive linemen Luke Fortner (Sylvania) and Kinnard (Cleveland); and tight ends Justin Rigg (Springboro) and Keaton Upshaw (Lima) — are expected starters for Kentucky in 2021.

Meanwhile, another Stoops assistant, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, has quietly opened up another “Big Ten state pipeline” for UK.

The 2021 Kentucky roster will feature seven scholarship players from Michigan.

At least four of the Michiganders — offensive tackle Jeremy Flax (Detroit); defensive linemen Marquan McCall (Detroit) and Justin Rogers (Oak Park); and linebacker DeAndre Square (Detroit) — either will or realistically could be starters for Kentucky in the coming season.

Roads south from Big Ten states to Kentucky run both ways, of course.

This offseason, Purdue added a talented former UK defensive back, Jamari Brown, who might have been in the Kentucky playing rotation at cornerback this year had he remained in Lexington.

After the University of Buffalo announced Friday that it had hired Michigan co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Maurice Linguist as its new coach, speculation quickly arose that the Wolverines might target Clinkscale as a replacement.

It is interesting that UK’s football recruiting success — both among high school players and via the transfer portal — does not seem to have engendered as much message board vitriol as Kentucky basketball did last week in poaching two coaches from one Big Ten team and a starting guard from another.

That likely owes to the fact that UK football is not the national brand that Kentucky basketball is and that Stoops is nowhere close to the polarizing figure that Calipari is.

It was fascinating the level of social media ire directed at Fredrick for leaving Iowa for UK.

In the NCAA’s bold new era of one transfer without penalty for every player, one surmises there will be many cases such as Fredrick in basketball and Robinson, the ex-Western Hills High School star, in football.

That is, players who initially leave the state where they played in high school to compete collegiately but subsequently have a change of heart and return home.

After the hay UK has made at the Big Ten’s expense during this school year in the transfer portal and the coaching carousel, one thing seems clear:

Several Big Ten fan bases have met the enemy — and it is Kentucky.

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