John Calipari: "We'll have guys coming back that need to come back."

Jack Pilgrim03/20/23


Article written by:On3 imageJack Pilgrim
Ugonna Onyenso, Louisville
Photo by Dr. Michael Huang | Kentucky Sports Radio

Rather than packing their bags for New York City, the Kentucky Wildcats are unfortunately turning their attention to the offseason. The focus isn’t on preparing for Michigan State in Madison Square Garden, it’s on stay-or-go pro and transfer decisions.

When should we expect to hear any official updates? John Calipari says the players will go home and talk things over with their families this week before sitting down with the Kentucky head coach next Wednesday. That’s when he’ll have a better feel for next year’s roster one way or the other.

“I’m really looking forward to it because we’ve got — I’m going to meet this week, well, Wednesday of next week with all the guys individually,” he said during his call-in radio show on Monday. “Give them time to talk (with their families) and then we’ll sit down and talk.”

His early expectation? The players that need to return will return and those that need to leave will leave. Easy enough, right?

“I think we’ve got a good group of young people,” he said. “I believe we’ll have guys coming back that need to come back and we will benefit by having them. And we’ll go from there. The portal, that’s down the road for us. Let’s see where all this other stuff down the road.”

One thing he does know, though, is that he loves his top-ranked recruiting class, one that features four top-10 signees and the 2023 Mr. Kentucky Basketball. It reminds Calipari of some of the old classes he brought in during his early days in Lexington, loaded with talent from top to bottom.

“The guys coming back, this freshman group that we have is like one of those freshman groups we’ve had in the past,” he said.

One hint on a player he is confident will return? Freshman center Ugonna Onyenso, a player he believes will take a significant jump in year two. And he’s confident he’ll be able to play with fellow 7-foot center Aaron Bradshaw, two players with complementary skills.

“We may be able to play two 7-footers at one time because they’re both skilled,” he said. “They both can shoot, both can shoot 15-footers, one can shoot threes. So you can have two 7-footers that if you choose, you can play them together.

“I absolutely think (Onyenso’s) going to end up being special. I do.”

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to Big Blue Nation. Calipari has already said he expects Onyenso to be “the best big guy, if not one of the best big guys in the country next year.” And then the native of Owerri, Nigeria confirmed his plan was to return for his sophomore season, replacing Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin in the Kentucky frontcourt.

“I gotta go back and start getting ready for next season because I won’t have Oscar, probably won’t have Jacob around,” Onyenso said after Sunday’s loss. “I need to let myself know that that’s a position I need to fill in and the things they didn’t achieve, I’m working on achieving it for them. Doing it for them. I’m just gonna work.“

So there’s one anticipated return, two anticipated departures. Anyone else?

Calipari guessed that all six seniors would leave following the loss, but wasn’t certain either way. Those conversations hadn’t started yet, obviously.

“My guess is they will all leave. That’s my guess, but I have not talked to them all,” Calipari said following the loss. “You know, I think you start winding down this COVID stuff where that’s your extra year, but these kids have accomplished a lot. We’ll sit down. Now’s not the time. I hugged them all after the game, told them I loved them and appreciated everything they’ve done. But those conversations will be for a little later date.”

Tshiebwe, Toppin, Antonio Reeves, CJ Fredrick, Sahvir Wheeler and Brennan Canada all gone? That’d be tough, especially for two toss-up pieces like Reeves and Fredrick. None of the six could confirm their final plans either way during postgame.

How about another likely returning piece? That would be Adou Thiero. While assistant coach Chin Coleman didn’t explicitly say the freshman guard was coming back, he did say he had the potential to be a “force” by putting in work in the gym this offseason — hopefully in Lexington.

“Adou Thiero, the physical abilities he has, he can be a force,” he said. “He can make an impact on both ends of the floor. It’s about dedicating himself and putting the hours in the lab, so to speak.”

No matter the final decisions — within reason, obviously — Coleman is elated about next year’s group.

“I feel very confident in the group we have coming in and with those individuals that come back and be on our team,” he said.

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