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With 12 scholarship players on the roster and depth across board, the Kentucky basketball roster looks strong as things stand going into 2021-22. When No. 1 overall high school prospect Jalen Duren - a serious reclassification candidate - and second-team All-American Kofi Cockburn emerged as potential options this summer, though, John Calipari's hand was forced to explore both possibilities.
On one hand, you get a 6-foot-10, 245-pound college- and pro-ready prospect who is expected to be a top-three draft selection in 2022 in Duren. On the other, you get a 7-foot, 285-pound monster in the paint in Cockburn, a proven commodity and arguably the top big man in all of college basketball going into next season. Pick your poison, both players are immediate game-changers for Kentucky next season.
Add either, and UK not only becomes the favorite to win the SEC, but the program solidifies itself as a top-tier team in all of college basketball with a shot at the title.
The competition will be strong within the conference, but the added presence of either monster post standout would separate the Wildcats from the pack.
"If you can add (Kofi) Cockburn or Jalen Duren, you've got a team that is a consensus favorite in the SEC," college basketball insider Jon Rothstein told KSR on Thursday. "For me, for Kentucky to get separation from the rest of those other teams (within the conference) - right now I think one through seven or one through eight is very close - I think landing either Cockburn or Duren is imperative."
It's a tricky situation for Kentucky. With Cockburn, he's a proven star at the collegiate level and helped lead Illinois to its best season in 16 years, finishing with a final record of 24-7, a Big Ten Tournament Championship, and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As a true back-to-the-basket center at 7-0, 285 pounds, he overlaps with UK center Oscar Tshiebwe, with neither player boasting stretch-four capabilities. On paper, they're not complementary pieces and could even be considered incompatible. Calipari has made it work in the past, namely with the 2014-15 roster when he was forced to platoon, but fit is still something to consider.
"Kofi Cockburn and Oscar Tshiebwe are unlikely - by most basketball people - to be able to play together, so you might replicate some of the same that you have with Tshiebwe at the five spot if you bring Kofi Cockburn to Lexington," Rothstein told KSR. "Now, that's not stopped John Calipari before. When you think back to that 2015 team, Karl-Anthony Towns played on the same line as Willie Cauley-Stein, who were backed up by guys like Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. I still think, obviously, Kofi Cockburn is going to be a major, major factor next year wherever he lands, but I think we're going to wait and see some other things materialize before we get a decision on that from a Kentucky perspective."
Even considering the potential fit concerns, it's undeniable what the possibility of adding Cockburn could do for Kentucky's ceiling.
"It completely transcends the ceiling for whoever lands Kofi Cockburn, especially when you think about what he can do not just offensively, not just on the backboard, but what he can do defensively in terms of intimidating people who attack the rim," said Rothstein.
Duren is also seen as the most college-ready big man to come through the high school ranks since Zion Williamson and draws comparisons to Chris Webber, with a No. 1 draft selection in 2022 being a very real possibility. At the same time, though, he's not expected to make a decision until after Peach Jam, he's still in the process of working out a reclassification, and Kentucky may not even be the final choice. Memphis and Miami (FL) are both looming large as strong options at the collegiate level, while the NBA G League and NBL are both throwing offers in excess of $1 million Duren's direction. You can favor one over the other, but it's a moot point if Duren doesn't sign on and reclassify after Peach Jam.
"From what I have gathered over the last three or four days, I think Kentucky is going to continue to explore the Jalen Duren situation," Rothstein told KSR. "That's something that's lingering and from what I'm told from Jalen Duren's camp is that he is not likely to make a proclamation on what he's going to do next season until after Peach Jam in a couple of weeks."
"That one's very tough to gauge right now," 247Sports national basketball analyst Travis Branham told KSR. "It's a very tight race at the top, I do think Miami and Memphis are duking it out for that top spot. Kentucky is obviously extremely deep and they are not far behind based on what I have gathered. It's way too soon to call, there's a lot to unfold in the coming weeks."
From a versatility perspective, Branham gives the edge to Duren in the head-to-head battle with Cockburn, but the recruiting guru would completely understand Calipari's decision to go all-in on the Illinois superstar if he feels the nation's No. 1 overall prospect is out of reach going down the home stretch of his recruitment.
"It's obviously a great problem to have if you're John Calipari," said Branham, who also confirmed that a decision for Duren is expected in the "next three or four weeks" at the end of Peach Jam. "This is something you have to do your homework on before you make a commitment either way. You have to do your homework and figure out where Duren is leaning and the likelihood of landing him. If I'm Calipari and I get word that I'm the leader for Jalen Duren, I would personally go with Jalen Duren over Kofi, just because Jalen is easier to switch out on the perimeter on defense and play multiple positions. He can play the four, he can play the five, his skillset is continuing to grow and develop. He's an elite talent.
"If you don't get that information that you're going to land Duren in about three weeks, I would have no problem fully committing to Kofi Cockburn. That's another monster of a talent to add to your frontcourt, you're talking about one of the best players in the entire NCAA. It's a great problem to have."
As for the college or pro decision, Branham continues to hear that Duren is favoring the college route.
"I don't think he's dead set on going to college, but I do think that's the leading path," he told KSR. "The most important things for him are the development aspects, he's really geared toward that. He just wants to improve on and off the court. Money is a nice bonus, but he just wants to get better."
One thing to consider when having the Duren vs. Cockburn debate: Kentucky's improved shooting from deep will make life easier for anyone who starts at the five next season, including Oscar Tshiebwe should Calipari strike out on both prized available big men.
"When you look at the dynamics of Kentucky's roster makeup, the shooting that John Calipari has added with Kellan Grady, with CJ Fredrick, with others, it's a perfect complement to whoever plays the five spot whether that's Oscar Tshiebwe or Kofi Cockburn if he were to come to Lexington," Rothstein told KSR. "If you have consistent outside shooting from three spots on the floor, it's going to be much more difficult to double team the five spot. The advent and the additions of the outside shooting of Kentucky that they added in the offseason will truly benefit whoever is playing the five next year."
As currently constructed, Kentucky's roster is capable of winning the SEC and making a run in March. Add either star frontcourt piece, and you've got yourself a true contender.
"Kentucky - and I have to split the atom a little bit - if they can add one of those players, they're definitely cracking the top ten and pushing the top seven or eight," said Rothstein, who currently has UK listed at No. 12 overall in his updated rankings. "I'm an advocate for returning personnel in college basketball. It's how I structure my rankings, it's always what I've believed in.
"... Returning personnel always usurps incoming personnel, but make no mistake about it, if Kentucky lands one of those two players - Kofi Cockburn or Jalen Duren - they have separated themselves from a very competitive top-half of the SEC and they're the SEC favorites."