Nolan Hickman’s decommitment from Kentucky was a shock to the entire Big Blue Nation when news broke on Friday afternoon.
Before his decision came out, Hickman was the lone pure point guard on the roster heading into the 2021-22 season. The belief has long been that head coach John Calipari would find a way to add another lead ball-handler, whether that be in the high school ranks or through the transfer portal. But as of right now, the ‘Cats are point guard-less, albeit with plenty of offseason left to figure it all out.
The timing of Hickman’s announcement wasn’t exactly as random as it might seem, either. Within the last seven days, the departures of two Kentucky assistant coaches, Tony Barbee and Joel Justus, were made official. Barbee moves on to take the head coaching position at Central Michigan while Justus is now the top assistant at Arizona State. Both coaches–Barbee, in particular–were the two lead recruiters for Hickman. With those two going elsewhere, Hickman was left without the people around the Kentucky staff that he knew best.
“[Nolan] told me that the coach that recruited him [Tony Barbee] is not around anymore,” Hickman’s high school head coach at Wasatch Academy, Paul Peterson, told KSR on Friday. “And then the other assistant coach [Joel Justus] was gone, too, so he thought the guys that believed in [him] the most are going to be gone. That’s what he told me.”
This decision had actually been brewing for a little bit now. Peterson said that Hickman told him about his worries surrounding the UK coaching staff changes shortly before the tragic news of Terrence Clarke’s passing, which occurred on April 22, but that Hickman did not want to announce anything at that time in order to be mindful of everything Clarke’s death brought upon the program and the Big Blue Nation as a whole.
Another factor in Hickman’s decision was being away from home for so long during a lengthy pandemic that severely limited outside interaction.
Hickman spent his senior season of high school at Wasatch Academy, located in Mount Pleasant, UT, which is roughly 1,000 miles from his hometown up in Sammamish, WA. Due to strict COVID-19 protocols at Wasatch, Hickman had been stuck in a tight bubble for a good chunk of the last year-plus. For someone who is notorious for being incredibly close to his family, it understandably wasn’t easy for Hickman to spend so much time away.
“He was really homesick this year,” Coach Peterson added. “You’re so close to your family, but you’re so far away. We had to be in a bubble this year so it wasn’t like he could travel in and out whenever he wanted. He had to stick it out and stay in school and not see his family for a significant amount of time. I remember the first time he actually got to see his mom and dad, we played down in St. George (Utah) after seven weeks of being on campus in the bubble, they surprised him, and he ran over there and was in tears because he hadn’t seen them in so long. The homesickness was a real thing. His family is close close. He and his sister sometimes sit on FaceTime and watch movies together. They are tight.”
Being homesick is not unusual for high school or college student-athletes, as Kentucky fans already know. During a “normal” year, Hickman would have easily been able to return to his home state of Washington. But as we all have experienced, the last 13 months have been anything but normal.
“It was really strict,” Coach Peterson said about Wasatch’s COVID-19 protocols. “We’re kinda out in the middle of nowhere, we have a 37-acre campus and so we had a six-week bubble where kids weren’t allowed off-campus and had to do everything on campus to mitigate COVID. After six weeks we were allowed to go out as a team but we weren’t allowed to leave the state. So St. George was the perfect place because it was right on the border of Nevada so a lot of [Las] Vegas teams came to play and we played down there and once we got back we had to quarantine after playing. It wasn’t a thing where you could fly home real quick for the weekend and come back. We couldn’t do that this year. Regular years they can but this year they couldn’t because of the risk of a COVID outbreak on campus.”
As for what’s next, Hickman plans on taking his time before making a decision, although he’s already hearing from Power 5 schools all across the country.
“I talked to him today and he said he’s just going to hear everybody out, see what they have to say,” Coach Peterson said about Hickman. “Because I asked him if was going to put his phone down because I figured it was blowing up and he was like ‘No I’m going to respond to everybody’. He told me everyone is reaching out, from SEC to Pac-12 to Big East and everything. He’s going to take his time and hear everyone out and make the right decision.”