It was a nationally televised game in December, Kentucky was up big, but as I watched I couldn’t help but ask myself one question.
‘How many of these guys are definite NBA players?’
Ty Ty Washington was clear, but the rest of the players making the biggest impact were primarily transfers – Oscar Tshiebwe from West Virginia, Kellan Grady from Davidson, and Sahvir Wheeler from Georgia – and not necessarily certain pros.
It was less NBA talent than I could remember seeing on a Kentucky roster in quite some time, the irony though, was it was also one of the best Kentucky teams I had seen in quite some time.
I wondered then, if we were seeing a philosophical shift in John Calipari’s views of roster construction. He had built his brand at Kentucky around the one-and-done model, won a national championship with it in 2012, and been to four Final Fours in five years between 2011 and 2015.
Since 2015 though, Kentucky had continued to recruit at an elite level – finishing with one of the top two classes in the country each season since – and yet they had not returned to a Final Four.
This trend wasn’t unique to Kentucky either, Duke had finished with the top ranked recruiting class in the country for three straight years from 2016-18 and hadn’t returned to the Final Four in any of those subsequent seasons.
Meanwhile, the programs that were winning national championships – Villanova, North Carolina, Virginia, and Baylor – all had a common denominator, they were older with primary veteran-laden rosters (Kansas’ most recent national championship yields another example).
So, last year Kentucky got older, with less one-and-done talent, and even if the upset loss to St. Peter’s in the NCAA Tournament is what some fans might hold on to, the reality is that it paid off in terms of wins and losses.
According to Kenpom.com, which is one of the most utilized and trusted sources of analytics in college basketball, the 2021-22 team was indeed Kentucky’s best in the last five years. They finished 6th overall in the country in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings – an advanced metric taking into consideration a variety of data points. Simultaneously, they finished 5th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and 36th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Comparatively speaking, that means this was their best team, both overall and offensively, since 2016. Their defense, has been remarkably consistent over the years, finishing outside the top-50 only once since 2013.
More recently, their approach to roster management this spring reveals more evidence of a shift. Kentucky just finished with the 15th ranked recruiting class in the country, the first time they’ve finished outside the top two since 247 began ranking national classes in 2011.
The class still features a pair of five-star prospects – Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston – as well as Adou Thiero, a late-blooming big guard who has a high long-term ceiling down the road. But when they lost Shaedon Sharpe to the NBA Draft, we didn’t see them scramble to get a prospect in the class of 2023 to reclassify up, a tactic that was utilized more than once in the past.
Instead, their biggest move of the off-season was to retain Oscar Tshiebwe, who has a chance to be the best big man in college basketball next season but whose NBA upside is less clear. Also significant was the addition of Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeveswho averaged twenty points per game last year and still has two years of eligibility remaining.
In short, we’ve seen them double-down on last year’s approach. BBN recruiting is no longer one-and-done or bust. It’s about a striking balance between the high school and transfer markets, exploring NIL opportunities as much for retention as for recruitment, and in so doing prioritizing the pursuit of championships first and foremost.