This isn’t the typical class of Kentucky basketball freshmen.
That much was known prior to the Wildcats’ 79-71 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, a game that only drove home the point.
UK Coach John Calipari obviously went a different direction with his approach to roster-building for this 2021-22 season, landing four highly touted, experienced players from the NCAA transfer portal. Partly as a result of that, the Cats ended up with just three high school recruits, the lowest number in Calipari’s 13 seasons as Kentucky’s coach. And the highest-ranked prospect among that trio — McDonald’s All-American guard TyTy Washington, at No. 14 in the 2021 composite rankings — is the lowest-ranked “top recruit” in any UK class during the Calipari era.
Washington was the only freshman in the starting lineup, and he struggled from the get-go.
The 6-foot-3 guard missed his first five shot attempts — two of them rush jobs as the shot clock expired — and never got into a groove offensively. He finished the game 3-for-14 from the field and missed both of his three-point attempts.
Coming into the season, Washington was seen as Kentucky’s top NBA Draft prospect for 2022 — a projected lottery pick — and possibly the Cats’ go-to guy in clutch situations. He scored a team-high 33 points over Kentucky’s two exhibition games, going 13-for-22 from the field and making all six of his three-point attempts.
On the Madison Square Garden court against a top-10 opponent Tuesday night, he looked very much like an 18-year-old freshman trying to find his way.
“TyTy played the way he did because we kind of wanted him to,” Calipari said afterward. “This kid — we’re playing exhibition games, he’s shooting nine or 10 shots. ‘You’re supposed to be a guy that can go get baskets.’ So, I will take responsibility for some of the plays that he made. And I just said to him, ‘You know, kid, you don’t have to make every shot. You just can’t miss ’em all. You gotta make one or two.’ And he just was missing a bunch of shots. And if you watch him play, that’s not him.”
Kentucky’s other two freshmen barely played at all.
Collins — a super athletic, 6-9 forward — was also a McDonald’s All-American and entered the season as a projected lottery pick on some NBA Draft boards. He’s been billed as more of a project, however, and he was treated as such against the Blue Devils.
The five-star recruit — ranked No. 15 in the 2021 class — entered the game for the first time with 14:39 left to go in the first half. He was swarmed on the baseline 30 seconds into his debut, resulting in a turnover. He committed a foul on the other end of the court, and Calipari subbed him back out at the 13:01 mark. He played another 45 seconds at the end of the first half and didn’t play at all after halftime.
Collins was a first-team All-American as a high school senior, averaging 35.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 6.2 blocks per game. He had zeros in every one of those categories in his college debut.
Listed at 202 pounds, he was clearly out of place against a Duke frontcourt that consisted of 250-pound Paolo Banchero, 242-pound Mark Williams and 242-pound Theo John.
“The game was a funky game for Daimion, but I think he’ll be fine,” Calipari said.
Hopkins, who was ranked as the No. 38 recruit in the 2021 class, was the player with arguably the most buzz in the preseason, surprising his teammates and coaches with his versatile play in early practices. He, too, played sparingly against Duke.
The 6-6 wing entered for the first time with 10:22 left in the first half, had a nice defensive series, missed a jumper on the other end, and was back on the bench with 7:53 to go before halftime. He never saw the court again.
So, all of the freshman stats in the season opener belonged to Washington, who logged nine points, two rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes, while transfers Oscar Tshiebwe (17 points and 19 rebounds) and Sahvir Wheeler (16 points and 10 assists) led the way for most of the game.
Kentucky’s freshmen will get a second chance against a more manageable opponent Friday night, when the Wildcats host Robert Morris in the home opener.
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