James Wiseman’s fascinating Kentucky-Memphis battle

There is an added appeal for Kentucky fans, not that the Wildcats have been short on talent in recent seasons, but master recruiter Calipari hasn’t landed a class’s No. 1 recruit since 2012 (Nerlens Noel) and his last consensus top-five signee came in 2015 (Skal Labissiere). Luring Wiseman (or potentially Carey, another top target) would at least be a symbolic bolstering of that reputation, with the added bonus of the built-in rapport between he and Bluff City teammate D.J. Jeffries, a top-40 wing committed to the Wildcats who has also excelled so far this week.

As late-blooming as the Memphis courtship has been, losing Wiseman to Calipari would provide an extra sting for Tigers fans. Resentment lingers from the coach’s exit a year after leading Memphis to a since-vacated national championship game appearance, which included Calipari bringing with him to Kentucky the heart of a recruiting class (John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) that would have again made the Tigers Final Four contenders. The tease of an elite local recruit flirting with Memphis before heading elsewhere would be bad enough. That elsewhere being Lexington would leave fans chewing on an especially bitter what-if.

Of course, Wiseman isn’t truly a Memphis product in the first place, but even that fact may bode well for the Tigers. Wiseman grew up in Nashville and spent his first two years of high school at The Ensworth School, a tony prep school in town, before his family moved to Memphis last year, resulting in Wiseman playing for Hardaway at East High. (Wiseman’s mother has said the family moved to be closer to her daughter, who already attends Memphis.) Wiseman having already made two team changes—he also switched AAU allegiances to the Hardaway-founded Bluff City Legends, then called Team Penny, last year—that resulted in him playing for Hardaway speaks volumes for how Wiseman views Hardaway, with whom he said Thursday he has “the same relationship” that he did while playing for him.

(There is an added, complicated layer to that relationship that could potentially result in East High’s 2018 state championship being vacated. Under Tennessee high school rules, a player who transfers schools and has an “athletic coaching link” with the new school is ineligible for the following 12 months. In question is whether Wiseman having played for Hardaway’s AAU program, of which he was no longer designated coach, constituted such a link. Wiseman was initially ruled ineligible last season, then reinstated after an injunction, but the case is not yet settled.)

On Thursday, Wiseman cited his relationship with the coaching staff as among his criteria in choosing schools. Here too Memphis (with Hardaway) and Kentucky (with Calipari and Justus, who Wiseman’s mother has called “my favorites”) would appear to be far ahead of the pack. But Wiseman, who has already taken an unofficial visit to Kansas, says he plans to spend this fall making five official visits to his top schools, which would lend some credence to the idea that his scope may be wider yet.

Still, the safe money would be on Wiseman being in Memphis or Lexington come fall of 2019, a time when the college basketball world at large will surely get to know him fast. Until then, he will be tracked closely by two very interested fanbases—and, perhaps futilely, by some hopeful others.

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