Kentucky basketball is doubling down on freshmen for next season. Is that a major mistake?

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For a program in dire need of experienced college basketball players, Kentucky appears to be taking a curious approach in filling out its 2023-24 roster.

The Wildcats’ only scholarship players so far for next season — pending a final decision from Antonio Reeves — are five incoming high school recruits and two sophomores who played sparingly as UK freshmen.

Common sense — as well as the current state of college basketball — says that John Calipari needs to hit the transfer portal, and hard, over the next few weeks to bring in some seasoned veterans to complement his five-star recruiting haul.

But in the latest twist to this underwhelming Kentucky basketball offseason, Calipari will instead host two under-the-radar high school prospects this week, and the Cats are expected to add at least one of those players to next season’s roster soon.

A pair of three-star recruits — small forward Jordan Burks and shooting guard Joey Hart — have emerged as legitimate UK targets over the past few days. Burks arrived in Lexington for an official visit earlier this week and is scheduled to announce a commitment Wednesday, with Kentucky assumed to be the choice. Hart has recruiting visits scheduled for both Indiana and UK this week, and a college decision is expected to come soon after those trips.

If Calipari lands both players, his projected 2023-24 roster would feature seven freshmen and two sophomores. How about some veterans capable of playing real minutes at Kentucky?

There aren’t too many left, according to national recruiting analyst Travis Branham, whose duties include overseeing transfer portal happenings for 247Sports.

“The portal’s drying up,” Branham told the Herald-Leader. “You’ve got limited options out there. Very limited options out there.”

A look at the 247Sports transfer rankings tell that story.

As of Tuesday morning, North Dakota State’s Grant Nelson (No. 3), Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma (No. 19) and Dayton’s Mike Sharavjamts (No. 34) were the only three players in the top 50 of those rankings that hadn’t found new schools.

Branham said he expected Nelson to make a commitment soon, and UK is not a serious player. Sharavjamts has already narrowed his list, and Kentucky isn’t on it. The Cats have been linked to Kaluma, a 6-7 forward who seemingly fills some of UK’s current needs, but other schools appear to be higher on his list.

Outside of those three, there are only three other uncommitted transfers in the top 100 of the 247Sports rankings, and none of those players appear to be UK possibilities either.

“When I say the portal is drying up, it is really drying up,” Branham said.

And the freshmen now being linked to Kentucky appear to be far from game-changers. Neither is ranked nationally by 247Sports, which lists 150 players in its class of 2023 ratings.

Burks — a 6-7 player from Decatur, Ala. — is the No. 37 small forward in the class and No. 172 in the 247Sports composite rankings. He was previously committed to Mississippi, reaffirming his pledge to the Rebels following the hire of new head coach Chris Beard in March and then backing off that commitment a couple of weeks later.

He did lead the Overtime Elite League in scoring this past season, averaging 27.1 points per game. He shot 26.7 percent from three-point range, 67.0 percent on free throws and averaged 19.9 field-goal attempts per game.

Burks also attended two different prep schools as a senior, before arriving at Overtime Elite, and he spent time with three different high school programs in Florida during his junior year.

Branham classified him as a potential contributor off the bench as a freshman at Kentucky, if he’s able to buy in enough on the defensive end to earn Calipari’s trust.

Hart — a 6-4 player from Linton, Ind. — is ranked as the No. 29 shooting guard in the class, and he’s listed at No. 197 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings. He was previously committed to UCF and has since reopened his recruitment following a senior season in which he averaged 23.7 points per game, shot 39.9 percent from three-point range and led his team to the Indiana class 2A state finals. He was the leading three-point shooter and one of the top scorers on the Under Armour circuit last summer.

Branham called him a “really good shooter” who might be able to come in and help space the floor if the 2023-24 Wildcats struggle from long range. The national analyst classified him as a good player for UK’s practices next season, but it sounds like any immediate impact in actual games is projected to be minimal, at best.

Branham also mentioned the possibility of a third incoming freshman addition for the Wildcats, who could be hosting this mystery recruit for an official visit sometime in the next week or two. That obviously wouldn’t solve the Cats’ lack of experience.

The transfer portal closed May 11, but that deadline did not apply to players who have already graduated from college. Grad transfers can jump into the portal at any time this offseason.

“There’s always a chance,” Branham said of that possibility. “And there are rumors that a couple could jump in — not saying they’re even Kentucky targets — but there’s a couple that could be jumping in.”

Even then, Branham said he hadn’t heard anything to indicate that UK would be in the driver’s seat for such a player, should one or two (or more) even become available in the next few weeks.

Kentucky’s ‘dangerous’ game

This year’s NCAA Tournament was dominated by veterans — as was much of the college basketball season — and while the more-experienced makeup of the 2023 Final Four teams might look like an outlier, the 2023-24 season will be played in the same landscape.

The sport will still feature players in their fifth year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 waiver, and it stands to reason that the programs that hit on the right mix of experienced transfers and returnees — possibly with a little bit of top-rate recruiting talent sprinkled in — will be flourishing by the end of the season.

That made landing such players — or getting some back — an imperative for Kentucky.

Instead, the Cats lost four players from their 2023-24 roster — point guard Sahvir Wheeler, shooting guard CJ Fredrick and forwards Daimion Collins and Lance Ware — to other schools. Reeves would be a fifth transfer departure, if he leaves. The Cats also lost one future NBA Draft pick (Cason Wallace) and three more starters with remaining eligibility who were not projected to be 2023 picks at the time they decided to stay in the draft: Oscar Tshiebwe, Jacob Toppin and Chris Livingston.

The result is a roster in disarray.

There’s talent there, to be sure. Point guard DJ Wagner and small forward Justin Edwards are projected lottery picks in the 2024 draft. Post player Aaron Bradshaw has the upside to be a first-rounder, and combo guard Rob Dillingham might, too. Combo guard Reed Sheppard was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American selection. And the Cats will return wing Adou Thiero and center Ugonna Onyenso, two young players with tantalizing potential.

But will that be enough to compete in this version of college basketball, especially at the level expected of Kentucky teams?

“It’s more dangerous than ever to rely on freshmen. Period,” Branham said. “With COVID (veterans) and the transfer portal, experience wins.”

The last time a team heavily reliant on freshmen won the national championship was 2015, when Duke beat Wisconsin in the title game. (And even that Blue Devils’ team had a senior and junior among its top five scorers.)

No title team since then has had a single freshman among its top three scorers. None. And the transfer portal and extra year granted to players who competed during the COVID-impact 2020-21 season have made experience even more important in the sport’s present state.

“So relying on freshmen has never been more dangerous than it is now,” Branham said. “Now, doing it with the 2023 recruiting class is even more dangerous. And if you were to do it again in 2024, it’s even more dangerous then. Because — we’ve talked time and time and time again — the ’23 class is not as good. And 2024, I think, is probably even worse.

“So to have five incoming freshmen that they’re expected to be heavily reliant upon, then you’re going after more? … I think there’s a good chance they end up with eight freshmen on their roster. That could spell for one roller coaster of a season.”

So far this offseason, former Michigan center Hunter Dickinson and former San Diego State forward Keshad Johnson are the only two transfers that have made it to UK’s campus for an official visit. Dickinson ended up at Kansas, Johnson picked Arizona, and now the Wildcats don’t appear to be frontrunners for any of the little remaining top-tier talent in the portal.

The wait-and-see approach the Cats took with NBA Draft deliberators Tshiebwe, Livingston and Reeves might be about to blow up in Calipari’s face. A Reeves return now appears to be crucial if Kentucky is going to have any experience at all on the 2023-24 roster.

And whatever this roster looks like once all of this is over, it’s becoming even more clear that Calipari will hinge Kentucky’s next basketball season on the ability of those freshman recruits.

That would be quite the gamble.

“To me,” Branham said, “I think they’re almost like a fringe tournament team right now.”

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