Over the past several years, Big Blue Madness has often seemed to be as much about impressing five-star recruits as it’s been about the start of a new Kentucky basketball season.
There have been John Calipari speeches tailor-made for visiting prospects. There’s been the annual sight of a UK assistant coach guiding high school recruits onto the court at an opportune time, once the show has begun and the stands have been packed with recruiting-savvy fans ready to cheer wildly and chant the names of the teenage VIPs. Those players are led to a spot in the crowd — often right behind the Kentucky bench area — before settling in to see something unlike anything else they’re likely to experience in their recruitments.
All of those things will happen again Friday night — when Big Blue Madness returns to Rupp Arena to tip off the 2021-22 season — but this one will be a little different from a recruiting perspective.
On every Madness night for the past decade, there’s been at least one five-star senior — usually a few — nearing a college decision and looking to get a final impression of Kentucky basketball before making a choice.
There was no traditional Madness in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The year before that, No. 1 recruit Cade Cunningham and star center Moussa Cisse visited UK for Madness prior to their final season of high school. It was Vernon Carey and RJ Hampton doing the same in 2018, Zion Williamson, Darius Garland and Bol Bol in 2017, and Mohamed Bamba and Trae Young in 2016.
Obviously, none of those players ultimately committed to the Wildcats, who have gone five years since landing a commitment from an uncommitted senior that came to town for Big Blue Madness. So, it might be a good thing for Kentucky that no such players will be on the Madness guest list Friday night.
The Herald-Leader confirmed this week that five-star point guard Skyy Clark, who committed to UK last October, is expected to be the only class of 2022 player in attendance at Madness.
That’s more of a testament to the way this particular recruiting cycle has progressed than any change in strategy on Kentucky’s end.
UK already has commitments from Clark, five-star shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe and five-star wing Chris Livingston, who will all be able to officially sign with the Wildcats next month.
There are only two other high school seniors on Kentucky’s recruiting radar at the moment — five-star center Adem Bona and five-star combo guard Cason Wallace — and both of those players have already taken their official visits to Lexington this fall (as have Sharpe and Livingston).
With few five-star 2022 players still uncommitted — and none other than Bona and Wallace linked to UK — no last-minute surprise visitors are expected from that group Friday night. The last time Calipari hosted a Big Blue Madness with zero uncommitted seniors in attendance was 2010, when Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer all came to town already committed to UK. (That group won a national title 18 months later).
The makeup of Friday night’s visiting group means there won’t be nearly as much recruiting urgency as pretty much every other Madness weekend in the Calipari era. That doesn’t mean this won’t be an important event for the future of Kentucky basketball.
Far from it.
In addition to getting more quality time with Clark and his family, who were unable to take any recruiting visits from March 2020 to June 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Kentucky coaching staff is scheduled to host some of its biggest targets in the 2023 class this weekend.
And UK has a much better track record there than with uncommitted seniors in recent years, with Keion Brooks, Tyrese Maxey, Lance Ware, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and the late Terrence Clarke among the players who have visited UK as non-seniors and later committed to the Wildcats.
This will be a prime opportunity for Kentucky to make a big impression on some of the game’s brightest young stars.
Right now, it’s unanimous. DJ Wagner is the No. 1 player in the 2023 class — 247Sports, Rivals.com and ESPN all say so — and he’s held that distinction since the national recruiting services first started ranking players in the group.
The 6-foot-3 point guard from New Jersey has an approach to the game that’s beyond his years — he just turned 16 in May — and there’s good reason for that. His father, Dajuan Wagner, was Calipari’s first major recruit at Memphis before becoming the original Cal one-and-done and going to the NBA as the No. 6 overall pick. DJ’s grandfather is Milt Wagner, the former Louisville star who also spent time on Calipari’s staff at Memphis.
Those connections have made Kentucky the de facto favorite in Wagner’s recruitment, though the star guard also took an official visit to Memphis this week, and the possibility of a jump straight to the pros will loom for as long as he’s in high school.
The ties between Calipari and the Wagners are close, however, and this will be an important visit as this recruitment progresses. It’s worth noting that Wagner’s brother, Kareem Watkins, is currently a UK walk-on, and sophomore forward Lance Ware was one of Wagner’s high school teammates.
Right on Wagner’s heels for the No. 1 ranking in the 2023 class is Mackenzie Mgbako, a 6-7 small forward from New Jersey who was actually teammates with Wagner on the Nike circuit this past summer.
In fact, Mgbako was named the top underclassman of the Nike EYBL regular season, beating out his higher-ranked teammate for the honor. 247Sports and Rivals.com both rank him as the No. 3 overall player in the 2023 class, and he could be in the mix for the top spot as the prospects in this group continue to progress.
247Sports analyst Travis Branham, who first reported that both Wagner and Mgbako would be visiting UK on Friday night, said as part of this week’s 2023 rankings update that Mgbako was “making a push for the top spot” in the class. Fellow 247Sports analyst Dushawn London went a bit further, saying Mgbako “may have the best shot at overtaking” Wagner for the No. 1 ranking.
Kentucky and Duke have both extended scholarship offers to Mgbako, who took an official visit to Durham last month, and the Blue Devils already have some predictions on his Crystal Ball page.
By the way, the New Jersey Scholars club that Wagner and Mgbako play for on the Nike circuit is led by Louisville great Pervis Ellison, who was also one of Lance Ware’s mentors in high school.
The most famous basketball player in Kentucky is obviously no stranger to UK basketball, but Friday night will be his biggest moment yet as a Wildcat recruit.
Reed Sheppard — a 6-3 guard at North Laurel High School and the son of former UK stars Jeff Sheppard and Stacey Reed Sheppard — earned a scholarship offer from John Calipari over the summer, hosted the Kentucky coach for an in-school visit a few weeks ago, and has already taken one unofficial visit to Lexington this fall.
Sheppard led Kentucky in scoring as a sophomore last season with 30.1 points per game, and his profile has gone national over the past few months. He’s gone from unranked to a consensus five-star player, now rated No. 17 in the class of 2023 by 247Sports and No. 21 by Rivals.com. Louisville, Indiana, Ohio State and Virginia are among the other major programs heavily recruiting him, but UK obviously has the family ties and is already seen by many as the team to beat for his commitment.
Another in-state prospect, Cyr Malonga is a 6-11 center from the Republic of Congo now starring for Evangel Christian in Louisville, and UK has shown some interest in his recruitment.
Kentucky assistant coaches watched Malonga over the summer, and Chin Coleman was among the college coaches who traveled to Louisville to see Malonga during the fall recruiting period. Malonga made the trip to Memphis this week for that program’s midnight madness event, and the Herald-Leader confirmed Wednesday that his plans to be in Lexington for Big Blue Madness were still on.
Malonga is seen as more of a long-term prospect at this point — he was No. 147 nationally in the updated 247Sports rankings this week — but he’s an intriguing recruit with a ton of potential moving forward.
Big Blue Madness
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena
TV: SEC Network