How will Kentucky basketball’s freshman class fare when portal players are the craze?

Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

Markquis Nowell was terrific in Kansas State’s second-round win over Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. The 5-foot-7 point guard scored 27 points. He made nine assists. He hit key shots down the stretch as K-State prevailed 75-69.

Nowell was epic in the Wildcats’ East Region semifinal win over Michigan State on Thursday night. Back home in the Big Apple, the Harlem native scored 20 points and dished a tournament-record 19 assists, including a no-look lob pass for Keyontae Johnson’s deciding dunk, in Kansas State’s 98-93 overtime victory at Madison Square Garden.

So where did this little wizard come from?

The transfer portal.

Of course.

That’s the story of college basketball these days, and one the local team must navigate and master if it wants to make a deeper run in next year’s Big Dance and beyond.

After playing a season for Cordia High School in Eastern Kentucky under former UK forward Rodrick Rhodes, Nowell played for the Patrick School in Hillsdale, New Jersey, before signing with Little Rock. He spent three seasons at the Sun Belt Conference school before transferring to Kansas State. After one season playing for Bruce Weber, Nowell became one of a collection of terrific transfers for new coach Jerome Tang.

Keyontae Johnson transferred to Manhattan from Florida; Desi Sills from Arkansas State; David N’Guessan from Virginia Tech; Cam Carter from Mississippi State; Ismael Massoud from Wake Forest. Nae’Qwan Tomlin started at Chipola (Fla.) College before landing at Kansas State.

Consider this: That group reached Saturday’s East Region finals against Florida Atlantic while only three of 247Sports’ top 10 class of 2022 recruits (Arkansas’ Nick Smith, Texas’ Dillon Mitchell and UCLA’s Amari Bailey) made it out of the second round.

It’s also one reason why teams from 11 conferences reached the Sweet 16. It’s a trend that is likely to continue.

“You can find teams that can make a quick turnaround in one season with a couple of the right guys that mature and get older and have experience,” Northern Kentucky head coach Darrin Horn said on Tom Leach’s radio show last week. “And teams are able maintain a little bit better. If they lose a key guy, there’s a better chance they replace him with someone as good or better with the same amount of experience.”

Not all portal players are the same, however. Ask North Carolina. Last season, Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek hit one key shot after another as the Tar Heels reached the national championship game. This year, Northwestern transfer Pete Nance was expected to fill Manek’s shoes. For whatever reason, it didn’t work. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25, the Heels failed to even make the tournament.

At Kentucky, John Calipari has taken grad transfers in Reid Travis, Nate Sestina, Davion Mintz, Kellan Grady and Antonio Reeves. Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr was a Wildcat on the 2020-21 team. Jacob Toppin has played three years after transferring from Rhode Island. Sahvir Wheeler has played two years after arriving from Georgia. Oscar Tshiebwe has played two years after transferring from West Virginia.

Truth be told, Cal’s high-level recruiting of high school talent hasn’t required a deep dive into the portal. After some slippage, the Kentucky coach is back in a big way with a 2023 class of Justin Edwards (No. 2 in the 247Sports composite), DJ Wagner (No. 3), Aaron Bradshaw (No. 4), Robert Dillingham (No. 9) and Reed Sheppard (No. 30).

Is that enough? That will depend on who returns from this year’s roster. It will also depend on how well a team built around freshmen can fare in a landscape in which players are older because of the extra COVID year and the transfer portal.

This season, Duke boasted class of 2022 recruits No. 2-4 in Dariq Whitehead, Dereck Lively II and Kyle Filipowski. After a late run to win the ACC Tournament, Jon Scheyer’s Blue Devils were bounced in the NCAA Tournament’s second round by Tennessee.

Meanwhile, as of Saturday night, Markquis Nowell was still playing.

Kentucky fans are right to have high expectations. John Calipari isn’t meeting them.

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