Kentucky basketball John Calipari favored for DJ Wagner

Something happened Friday night.

We’re not sure what. We’re not sure why. We’re only sure that the college basketball recruiting gurus that track these sort of things changed their minds about who might win one of the most fascinating prospect tug-of-wars this commonwealth has witnessed.

Those in-the-know had been predicting that DJ Wagner would play his college ball at the University of Louisville.

Now those-in-the-know are predicting that DJ Wagner will play his college ball at the University of Kentucky.

“I have now pulled back my Crystal Ball on DJ Wagner to Louisville as the race with Kentucky has become too cloudy,” tweeted Travis Branham, national basketball analyst for 247Sports.

Jamie Shaw, national analyst for On3, changed his prediction from Louisville to Kentucky, adding he was 95 percent sure that Wagner would commit to the Cats, possibly at the Nike Peach Jam, set for July 17-24 in North Augusta, South Carolina.

You know Wagner, the 6-foot-5 guard from Camden, New Jersey, with incomparable bloodlines. He’s ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2023. He also has a lengthy list of ties to both UK and U of L, thus setting up a titanic recruiting battle between the heated in-state rivals and coaching friends.

Thinking was new Louisville coach Kenny Payne, a former assistant to John Calipari at Kentucky, enjoyed the upper hand for Wagner’s services after hiring his grandfather, Milt, for an off-the-court role on the Cardinals staff. After all, Kenny Payne and Milt Wagner played together on U of L’s 1986 national championship under Denny Crum.

Others contended Calipari enjoyed the upper hand, thanks to the fact Cal coached Wagner’s father, Dajuan, at Memphis and currently coached Wagner’s stepbrother Kareem Watkins as a walk-on. After all, Dajuan Wagner was the first in what is now a long line of Calipari’s one-and-done stars.

According to all-knowing, all-seeing social media the stakes for the two schools went something like this:

Louisville fans should panic if Payne, in his first head-to-head with his former mentor, couldn’t reel in Wagner despite all his family connections.

Kentucky fans should panic if Calipari, coming off a 9-16 record in 2021 and a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to a No. 15 seed, couldn’t reel in Wagner despite all his family connections.

Louisville was supposedly being helped by commit Kaleb Glenn, who was trying to convince Wagner teammate and heralded 7-foot recruit Aaron Bradshaw that the trio should be a package deal for the Cardinals.

Kentucky was supposedly getting help from Bradshaw, who was trying to convince Wagner that the duo should join highly rated point guard Robert Dillingham with the Wildcats.

Camden (NJ) guard DJ Wagner is the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class, according to the composite rankings. Gregory Payan AP

Here’s the thing: Recruiting successes and failures are temporary fare in college hoops. The winner of the Wagner Derby isn’t guaranteed long-term success. The sweepstakes loser has plenty of resources and time for a rebound.

Such is life in the one-and-done era. No matter the outcome, Kentucky or Louisville will be a temporary stop on Wagner’s certain trip to the NBA. And the past few NCAA Tournament champions have been built on the shoulders of experienced players who spent multiple years with their programs.

With all that being said, coaxing a commit from Wagner would be a major coup in Calipari’s efforts to replicate the other-worldly recruiting efforts of his first six standout years on the UK job.

From 2010 through 2015, Calipari had nine players chosen among the first 10 in the NBA Draft. Since 2016, he’s had three. (Sorry, Enes Kanter Freedom and Shaedon Sharpe don’t count.)

UK’s NCAA Tournament record from 2010 through 2015: 22-4.

UK’s NCAA Tournament record from 2016 through 2022: 9-5.

While an obvious blow, losing Wagner won’t sink Payne’s program. Calipari has been recruiting DJ Wagner for years. He has a history of helping players, especially guards, to long NBA careers. While I’m bullish on what Payne will do in Louisville, he’s a first-year head coach.

Is all that what switched the Wagner momentum from the Cards to the Cats? The UK camp will contend Calipari was the leader to land the top prize all along. If so, the gurus say he’s about to get his man from him.

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he has covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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