What’s driving this sudden surge in Kentucky basketball recruiting success?

·7 min read

Two commitments from top-five national recruits in the past two weeks, including a pledge from the No. 1 basketball player in the country. A likelihood that two more top-10 prospects will join Kentucky’s 2022 class in the coming weeks, giving John Calipari one of his best recruiting hauls ever in Lexington.

What’s driving this uptick in recruiting success for the Wildcats?

The easiest answer would be to point to the coaching staff shakeup that occurred this offseason, when Calipari brought back Orlando Antigua and brought in Chin Coleman — two nationally renowned recruiters, both previously at Illinois — to join rising coaching talent Jai Lucas on the Kentucky staff.

That is almost certainly having some sort of effect, but those changes probably aren’t most responsible for the recruiting resurgence Kentucky is seeing with this specific class.

Skyy Clark, the first UK pledge for 2022, was already committed to the previous staff. Shaedon Sharpe, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, had strong ties to Kentucky through his AAU program and was already likely to pick the Cats before the coaching changes. Cason Wallace, another top-10 recruit expected to join the Wildcats in the coming weeks, has also long been seen as a UK lean.

So, the seeds were planted for a stellar 2022 class a while ago, both through previous work and fortunate circumstances.

One big difference between recent recruiting cycles and this one is the change to the NCAA’s name, image and likeness rules, which were updated over the summer to allow for players to make money while still in college.

“To me, it’s a combination of many things,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “I think NIL plays a huge part in that. Not only in attracting kids, but I think that if anybody knows John Calipari, it’s that he’s a trailblazer. Anytime he sees some sort of change — anything that he can be the first to innovate and attack head on and be the leader in it, he gets very energized. So I think the change to NIL not only helps Kentucky because of the marketability of these players, but I think it has re-energized Cal in a lot of ways to where he’s getting back after it really, really hard.

“He’s getting back into these elite recruits at the top of their list, and it’s obviously paying off very quickly.”

No doubt about that. The latest victory came Wednesday night with the commitment of Chris Livingston, who had long kept recruiting analysts guessing and might be the best example of the multiple variables at work leading to the formation of this Kentucky class.

The new coaching staff definitely deserves some of the credit for landing Livingston’s commitment.

Coleman, who had a front row seat for Livingston’s first game of the July evaluation period and stayed in daily contact with the star player, did an outstanding job in his recruitment.

Without those NIL changes in place, however, things might have ended up differently. Kentucky might not have had a realistic shot.

Like Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates, two players who recently committed to Memphis for this season, Livingston was long seen as a player likely to skip college altogether and opt for a pro career out of high school. Keyonte George, the No. 3 player in the new 247Sports rankings, is another 2022 prospect many thought would go pro. He committed to Baylor not long after NIL reforms went into effect.

“I think NIL is playing a major factor for a lot of these kids,” Branham said. “It’s obviously playing a major factor in these kids going to college. Jalen Duren, Emoni Bates and now Chris Livingston — those are three guys that everybody expected them to all go the pro route. NIL changes, and now they’re all coming to college.

“Kentucky obviously has a massive market for it. So I think if anyone says that NIL isn’t playing a part in this, frankly, they’re fooling themselves.”

Kentucky on right track

Calipari downplayed the role of NIL reforms last week, but only to a degree. He said he couldn’t see a recruit picking Kentucky just because of the possibility of NIL money. He did, however, acknowledge the reality of the new landscape, noting that while UK might not sign a player just because of its NIL possibilities, the program could very well lose recruits if they don’t stay on top of the trend.

“Let me say this to you: It is a reason they’ll go somewhere else if you’re not doing it right, and they will do it,” Calipari said. “Every player that we brought on this campus and we’re talking about recruiting, they wanted to know, their families especially, ‘What are you doing with name, image and likeness? How are you trying to help, and how are you trying to protect?’ Every kid.”

Livingston acknowledged as much this summer.

A few weeks after his official visit to UK, in an interview with the Herald-Leader, he was open about the possibility he could turn pro — even going over the specific leagues that had contacted him — but he also talked about hearing UK’s NIL-related pitch and said it could be a game-changer for players in his position.

“I think it kind of evens it up for colleges,” he said in July. “I think it plays a big role.”

At the time, many still thought he would turn pro. Two months later, he committed to Kentucky.

A couple of weeks before NIL reforms went into effect, Coleman was asked about the changes at one of the UK basketball summer camp stops. He said then that there were too many moving parts to say anything definitely — which, given all of the uncertainty at the time, was certainly true — but he also noted his new boss, and the coaching staff as a whole, would be all over whatever changes were ultimately put in place.

“We talk about it every day as a staff, and I can tell you right now, there is no one on top of it more than Coach Cal. No one. I promise you,” Coleman said. “He’s spending 27 hours a day on trying to understand all of the NIL stuff.”

It’ll be interesting to see just how much it pays off in the future.

It’ll be just as interesting to see what UK’s revamped coaching staff does with a full recruiting cycle.

Keep in mind that the new coaches Calipari brought in had to jump into this 2022 cycle toward the end, after other schools had already formed lasting relationships with some of UK’s top targets. Logic says they’ll be positioned even better with future classes, when they’re able to start recruitments from scratch and build relationships with players and their families much earlier in the process.

As far as the current success, it appears that Calipari has been re-energized by both the changing nature of his program and the overall shift in the college basketball landscape.

“My thing is I’m moving on. I’m excited about coaching. That’s going to be a blip in the screen,” he said last week of the previous year’s struggles. “... I don’t have the rearview mirror. I’m looking forward.”

Intent on putting a disastrous 9-16 season behind him — and eager to move forward with new faces amid big changes that bring greater possibilities — Calipari is turning the page in a big way.

“I just think there are a lot of factors coming into play,” Branham said. “And this new staff and Coach Calipari are just hitting it running.”

Kentucky has the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. Will the Wildcats hold on to it?

Star recruit Chris Livingston picks Kentucky. Here’s what he’ll bring to the Cats.

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We asked recruiting analysts to assess Reed Sheppard’s summer. Here’s what they said.

Kentucky basketball commitment page: What to know about UK recruit Shaedon Sharpe

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