Is UK basketball about to rediscover the value of in-state players?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Mark Story
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The news that Iowa starting guard and former Covington Catholic star CJ Fredrick is entering the transfer portal and might be headed to Kentucky has ignited the Hawkeyes message boards.

The rumors that Fredrick could be transferring to UK have been percolating in the commonwealth since back in the winter. Yet that buzz apparently had not reached Iowa City, leaving Hawkeyes fans feeling blindsided and betrayed Sunday as word leaked out.

If Fredrick, the MVP of the 2018 Boys’ Sweet Sixteen after leading CovCath to its second state title, in fact ends up at UK, it could herald a new phase for the Wildcats’ men’s basketball program.

We are in the midst of at least two tectonic shifts in men’s college basketball that could fundamentally alter how Kentucky rosters are built:

1.) Recruiting in “the one-and-done market” has reached a point of diminishing returns due, in part, to the emergence of the NBA G League as a rival.

Not coincidentally, veteran teams have reasserted control of the NCAA Tournament — the 25 starting slots on the past five national champions have featured a combined 21 seniors (six) and juniors (15).

2.) Sparked by the success of Steph Curry and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, an analytics-driven revolution in playing style that puts much greater emphasis on having players with the ability to make perimeter shots has worked its way down to the college game.

For UK, those two changes might create a value for home-grown players that did not exist before.

Over the past decade, the impact of products of Kentucky high school basketball on the Wildcats program has not been immense.

When former Pendleton County star Dontaie Allen made his injury-delayed debut for the Cats this past season, he became the first in-state, scholarship player to play for John Calipari’s Cats since Dominique Hawkins (Madison Central) and Derek Willis (Bullitt East) graduated in 2017.

Ex-Mason County star Darius Miller is the only homegrown, 1,000-point scorer at Kentucky so far in the 21st century (1,248 career points). He also started on a Final Four team (2011) and, as the sixth man, was a key cog on an NCAA title squad (2012).

Willis (555 career points) emerged as a regular during his junior year (2015-16) and was the starting power forward on an Elite Eight team as a senior (2016-17).

Hawkins (293 career points) was the backcourt defensive stopper off the bench as a true freshman for UK’s 2014 Final Four squad. In 2017, as a senior, he made the All-SEC Tournament Team as the Cats’ sixth man.

As for Allen, in an up-and-down redshirt freshman season in 2020-21, the 2019 Kentucky Mr. Basketball averaged 5.4 points but made 39.7 percent of his three-point attempts.

One frustrating facet of any discussion around Kentucky Wildcats basketball and its emphasis — or lack thereof — on in-state talent is arguments tend to get drawn to the extremes.

Some call for UK to field rosters comprised of a majority of home-grown players. Yet the harsh reality is Wildcats teams constructed in that manner would have no hope of winning in the way Kentucky is accustomed (this past 9-16 season not withstanding) to doing.

Consider: In the 21st century so far, there have been only eight players from our state chosen in the NBA Draft. Only two of them, Louisville product Rajon Rondo (2004-06) and Miller (2008-12), played for UK.

Conversely, others plead for Kentucky to fill the end of its bench with in-state recruits. That, too, is a flawed idea. Signing homegrown prospects merely to sit the pine would be unfair to the players — and the likely fan-carping about their not playing would make life miserable for a UK coach.

In the current era, many Cats backers have grown frustrated with players (see Montgomery, EJ) turning pro with remaining eligibility who have no hope of hearing their names called in the NBA Draft. Wildcats followers are also weary of promising players transferring (see Juzang, Johnny) rather than staying and developing at Kentucky.

Home-grown talent would seem more likely to stick at UK. Miller, Hawkins and Willis, after all, all stuck it out and finished their eligibility at Kentucky.

Meanwhile, if UK evaluates the prospects in the state of Kentucky vigorously, it ought to be able to sift out players with some regularity who can consistently make jump shots in high-level college hoops contests.

Should he end up at Kentucky, Fredrick would fill both bills.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound guard redshirted as a true freshman at Iowa in 2018-19, then started all 52 games in which he appeared over the past two seasons.

For his Iowa career, Fredrick is a 46.6 percent three-point shooter. He also has 121 assists vs. only 42 turnovers, so he is not a one-trick act.

Whatever happens with the ex-CovCath star, UK recruiting moving forward has to prioritize adding at least some multi-year players and more perimeter shooters.

It is those twin needs that could create more opportunities at Kentucky for in-state prospects.