Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

John Calipari finally fills Kentucky roster after working longer for recruits and transfers

Syndication: The Courier-Journal

Kentucky’s John Calipari coaches his team against Providence in the NCAA Tournament. March 17, 2023 Kentuckyprovidence 06

Scott Utterback/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The angst among Kentucky’s fervent fan base was palpable as the Wildcats listed just seven scholarship players and coach John Calipari worked to fill out a roster that lost 2022 consensus national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe among eight departures.

A month’s work on the recruiting trail and the transfer portal has yielded a full squad, albeit later than expected. The Hall of Fame coach will have one of his youngest teams in recent memory as a result, but manpower isn’t a concern – even with 7-foot centerpiece Aaron Bradshaw sidelined for now.

As has been the case throughout Calipari’s 15-season tenure, Kentucky’s challenge will be enduring the growing pains of blending another top-ranked recruiting class with holdovers. That process starts this week, in fact.

“We’ve got a lot of playmakers on the team that look for each other,” said fifth-year guard Antonio Reeves, Kentucky’s top scorer among the seven returnees at 14.4 points per game. “I think that’s the one key difference from last year.”

Though roster turnover is an annual ritual for Calipari, this year’s makeover stands out for the number of arrivals and departures and accompanying hype.

Two-time All-American Tshiebwe (16.5 points, 13.7 rebounds) is now with the Indiana Pacers, one of four starters who left this spring, though guard Cason Wallace and forward Chris Livingston were the ones taken in last month’s NBA draft. Four others transferred from last year’s 22-12 squad including floor general Sahvir Wheeler, who’s now at Washington.

Calipari already had the nation’s top freshman class on board, with Bradshaw (12.1 points, 9.4 rebounds) projected to provide the inside presence that was lacking even with Tshiebwe excelling on both ends of the floor. He is out after undergoing foot surgery last month, an absence that initially could place more responsibility on heralded freshman such as 6-foot-8 Justin Edwards, Rob Dillingham (6-2) and fellow guard D.J. Wagner (6-3), the grandson of former Louisville great Milt Wagner. Kentucky also added 6-9 Jordan Burks and 6-5 Joey Hart more recently.

“It’s unfortunate for him, but we’ve had guys that couldn’t be there in the summer and came back and played great,” Calipari recently said of Bradshaw without offering a timetable for his return.

Uncertainty over whether Reeves would return to school created additional concern about experience and leadership. Reeves’ return quelled that anxiety and Calipari landed a key pickup from the portal in 6-9 former West Virginia forward Tre Mitchell, a graduate who transferred from Morgantown after coach Bob Huggins’ resignation following a drunken-driving arrest last month.

Huggins now insists he didn’t resign, but Mitchell is in Lexington and eager to begin playing for the coach who recruited him in high school and through several stops in the portal.

“Coach Cal obviously has a track record that speaks for itself,” said Mitchell, who averaged 11.7 points and 5.5 rebounds last season for the Mountaineers. “When I entered the portal and he reached out, it’s an opportunity that it’s kind of hard to pass up.”

At the very least, Reeves and Mitchell provide needed veteran guidance as the underclassmen adjust to college basketball. They’ll have some help from 6-11 sophomore Ugonna Onyenso and 6-6 guard Adou Thiero, who has added noticeable muscle.

The mix of young and old(er) is what Calipari desires, and he’s not surprised that assembly took longer.

“We were always in a strong position,” the coach said. “I was never panicked about anything. The best teams I’ve coached had really good young players and some veterans. ... We waited for Jamal (Murray), we waited for different guys and got them later. And it’s all played out.”

Kentucky gets a first chance to see how things come together without Bradshaw at a tournament this week in Toronto. The Wildcats will open Wednesday against Germany in the four-team event that includes Canada and Team Africa.

As much as players aim to win, the objective is building the chemistry they hope will pay off next March.

“It’s going to be good for us,” Wagner said. “Being out there on the court for the first time and learning off each other like we have been in practice against pretty good competition, it’s going to be fun.”