A one-time Kentucky basketball commitment will face the Wildcats on Tuesday night

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
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On Tuesday night, D.J. Jeffries will finally get a chance to play on the Rupp Arena court, more than two years after he had originally planned.

Jeffries — a junior at Mississippi State — is a rarity in the John Calipari era of Kentucky basketball. The 6-foot-7 forward was a star recruit in the 2019 class when he committed to Calipari and the Wildcats as a high school junior in March 2018. At the time, he was UK’s first commitment for the 2019 class, a do-it-all prospect who had grown up following Calipari in the Memphis area and dreamed of playing for the now-Kentucky coach.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to have someone like Coach Cal be interested in a kid like me,” Jeffries said on the night of his UK commitment. “You know, he can go after any kid in the nation. But he just chose to stick by me and recruit me the hardest and believe in me. It’s a good feeling that somebody like that believes in me and wants me to come to their program.”

Less than five months later, Jeffries backed out of that commitment, and his father criticized Kentucky’s staff for its reaction to the decision. Three months after that, he announced a new commitment to Memphis.

The circumstances at the time were unusual, and the end result was understandable. Around the time of Jeffries’ commitment to Kentucky, the Memphis Tigers let go of Tubby Smith to hire star alum Penny Hardaway as the program’s new head coach.

Hardaway was also Jeffries’ coach on the Nike circuit and an important figure in his early basketball life. When Jeffries picked Kentucky, he acknowledged the ties to Hardaway and the pull of his hometown school, but he said then that the recruitment was over.

“Now that I’m committed, I just wish Penny and Memphis the best,” Jeffries said. “Penny was a big help, because he taught me a lot during the summer. And I’ll still learn a lot from him this summer. But, now, I’m all about Kentucky.”

Obviously, those ties were too much in the end, and Jeffries ultimately became the first player since Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009 to back out of a commitment to the Wildcats.

The news got even worse for Kentucky.

Less than a month after Jeffries picked Memphis, his Team Penny AAU teammate — No. 1 recruit James Wiseman, who was the Cats’ top target in the 2019 class — did the same, dealing Calipari a double blow and making Hardaway the hottest name in college basketball recruiting.

Things didn’t turn out great for Memphis over the course of the next year. Wiseman left the program early in his freshman season as the result of an eligibility battle with the NCAA stemming from his previous relationship with Hardaway. The Tigers were just OK amid through-the-roof expectations in the first season of the Penny era, going 21-10 (10-8 in the league) before the postseason was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeffries played out his sophomore year for the Tigers — averaging 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game — before entering the transfer portal last offseason. The Olive Branch, Miss., native ended up at Mississippi State, which had been a major suitor in his original college recruitment.

“He was a great addition,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said Monday, noting how hard they had recruited Jeffries the first time around. “We were just thrilled to get him.”

This season, Jeffries is averaging 10.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in 27.7 minutes while starting in all 18 games for the Bulldogs so far. He’s fourth on the team in total points, second in rebounds, third in assists and leads the squad with 16 blocked shots going into Tuesday night’s matchup at Kentucky, the team’s second ranked opponent of the season.

Jeffries is also a versatile defender who is likely to match up with a few different Wildcats on Tuesday night. With Tolu Smith — the Southeastern Conference’s leading rebounder from last season — sidelined due to a knee injury, Jeffries is likely due for a bigger role in his first game against Kentucky.

Smith has missed 10 games this season due to injury. Seven of Jeffries’ 10 double-digit scoring games have come while Smith was out.

“He’s a very smart player,” Howland said of Jeffries. “He’s a good all-around player. He can do a lot of everything — rebound, pass, handles the ball. And, again, one of our best defensive players and most versatile players. He can play multiple positions and defend multiple positions.”

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