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uk football helmetBy LARRY VAUGHT

Five-star running back Damien Harris of Madison Southern, a recent Michigan de-commit and considered the nation’s top junior running back, highlights recruits scheduled to be at Kentucky Saturday.

Current UK commit Montrell Custis of Georgia will be there as will four-star linebacker Eli Brown of Bowling Green, a priority in-state target for UK.

Once again, Ohio players dominate the recruits visiting. Those scheduled to attend include four-star offensive lineman Georg Brown; four-star linebacker Nick Conner; three-star offensive linemen George Asafo-Adjei, Noah Listerman and Rob Dowdy; three-star linebackers C.J. Stalker, Anthony McKee and David Long; three-star cornerback Kei Beckha; and three star defensive tackle Elijah Taylor.

Others known to be planning on attending — providing weather doesn’t change that — are four-star cornerback Marcus Lewis and three-star receiver Jabari Greenwood of Washington, D.C., four-star defensive lineman Darius Fullwood of Maryland (a teammate of 2014 signee Kobie Walker), and three-star receivers Tavin Richardson of South Carolina and Dexter Neal of Georgia.

Two quarterbacks — junior Reese Ryan of Lexington Catholic and sophomore Messiah deWeaver of Ohio — are scheduled to visit along with these in-state players: tackle Mason Wolfe of Henderson, linebacker Ramone Kelly of Louisville, receiver Marcus Floyd of Lexington and running back Michael Nero of Louisville.

Luke Kennard Photo by Nick Falzerano

Luke Kennard Photo by Nick Falzerano

By LARRY VAUGHT

Louisville coach Rick Pitino came to Frankin, Ohio, to watch junior shooting guard Luke Kennard practice and spent a couple of hours there during the visit.

“It went well,” said Mark Kennard, the father of the 6-65shooting guard who is averaging about 40 points per game this season. “Coach Ptino is a good guy and one of the top coaches in the game. But all the coaches have been great.”

Ohio State’s Thad Matta, Kentucky’s John Calipari, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are some of the other coaches that have watched Kennard play this year. He has cut his list of potential schools to Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, Michigan and Florida. He visited Ohio State Jan. 12 and plans to visit Duke this season.

“He’s scoring a few baskets and as a team we are having a good year,” Mark Kennard said.

Fans are certainly enjoying what they are seeing as the small community has been turning out in force to watch Kennard and his teammates play.

“Sometimes they presell tickets and sometimes not,” Mark Kennard said. “At our last game they announced early it was sold out. My sister didn’t even get in. It’s neat to see so many fans at games. We go during the freshman game to make sure we get in. But it has been a lot of fun for the community and great for Luke and his teammates.”

That attention won’t lessen because of the schools recruiting Kennard, who still hopes to make a college choice in the spring.
He was at Kentucky when the Wildcats played Eastern Michigan and hopes to attend at least one more game this season.

“It will be a tough decision, but we still hope to get it done in May,” Mark Kennard said.

Teams have tried “trick defenses” to stop Luke Kennard, who can score in a variety of ways, this season.
“But he’s made a lot of nice passes and it helps that he has good teammates,” Mark Kennard said. “Our team is basically all juniors and they are all getting better. His best friend probably will get to play at the next level, too. They are best buddies on the team and the players all get along great.”

 

By LARRY VAUGHT

Coach Mike Taylor has no problem calling 5-9 point guard Tyler Ulis the “star player” for Marian Catholic (Chicago Heights, Ill.).

“He is a special, special player,” Taylor said. “I had never seen him play before he enrolled at Marian. His dad asked me I if thought he could play varsity. I took him to a summer league game and within five minutes I knew he would be a varsity player. You just have to see him to appreciate how good he is.

“He does so many things well. He is so gifted and so, so creative. He is just a joy to watch. Every time you walk into the gym, you see something different from him that amazes you.”

The four-star prospect is scheduled to announce his college choice tonight before Marian’s home football game. He has narrowed his choices to Kentucky, Michigan State and Iowa. Marian Catholic will be coming to the McCracken County Festival of Hoops in western Kentucky to play Jan. 11, but Taylor noted that his team is also playing in showcase events in Michigan and Iowa.

While most players use a school assembly to announce their college choice, Taylor thought it would be unique for Ulis to make his pick at the football game.

“We talked a lot about doing this in the fall. I am glad he is sticking to that, too. I think it is the best thing for him,” Taylor, an assistant football coach, said. “He is not just so in love with the recruiting process that he wants continuous attention. He is comfortable getting it over with and getting on with his senior season.

“When his dad called and said they would like to do this Friday, I thought about what would be a good way. One of his backcourt mates (on the basketball) team plays football. I thought it would be a great atmosphere to do it this way instead of the more generic school assembly. It will be neat for him and our students. We are off to a 2-0 sart in football and have a tough opponent. We are dedicating the field to a head coach who retired last year after coaching 37 years. So this will be a good way to bring more fans to the stands.”

Taylor says fans of whatever school Ulis picks will “love” him also.

“In a world where a lot of athletes are playing basketball, he is a basketball player,” the Marian coach said. “Just pure and simple. That is what is refreshing about him. He just plays basketball the way you should.

“He works at it. He studies it. His court awareness and intelligence, not many at his age have what he has. He reads defenses. He reads individual players. He knows what to do and instinctively reacts to it. I can’t overstate how special a player he is to watch play.”

Don’t let his size fool you, either.

“When he was a freshman starting, he was 5-4. I have had him guard kids 6-7, and have not worried about it. He just knows how to play,” Taylor said. “People always tell me I am overstating it, but if he was 6-6 he would be the same player as (Kentucky freshman Andrew) Harrison. He has the same kind of skills. In basketball states that appreciate basketball, they forget size and watch the beauty of the game. That’s why fans will love Tyler.

“I know Calipari likes big guards, and everybody knows that. But the thing Tyler brings is that big guards can’t guard him. The people he played against this summer, I don’t think any big-name guards enjoyed guarding him. He makes life difficult for other players he plays against.”

Taylor only has one complaint about Ulis.

“He doesn’t shoot enough. He can shoot it, but he is so unselfish and is really happiest on the floor when he is delivering the ball to teammates,” Taylor said. “When he’s with guys that can finish in the air, can hit open 3’s … you get him on that type of team and getting 20 assists in a game is not outside the realm of possibility. He’s that good.”

Luke Kennard Photo by Nick Falzerano

Luke Kennard Photo by Nick Falzerano – click on the photo to view a video of longtime family friend Linda Heagen on why she thinks Luke will go to UK.

By LARRY VAUGHT

The Kentucky fans in southern Ohio who know Franklin, Ohio, guard Luke Kennard or his family would like to see him play for Kentucky, and think he will.

“He has been a UK fan forever. His dad took a ribbing when he started getting recruited by Michigan and wore a Michigan hat around because the whole family is UK fans. A lot of us are hoping he comes to Kentucky because there are a lot of UK fans here, including his family,” long-time UK fan Kenny Smith said.

“I know his mom and we were friends in college. I know his values, where they go to church. Him being fourth in class with 4.3 grade point average, he is just your dream kid,” Mike Daulton, who has a son playing at nearby Monroe High School, said. “If anybody had a daughter, he is the one you would want her to meet or the way you would want your son to be. He just seems so humble. He sits down and watches a JV game by his mom and dad. He has not got this bigger than life mentality. He is just a normal kid with a good surrounding around him that lets him enjoy being a kid as well as a star athlete. And the family has always liked UK, including him.”

Vic Green knows Mark Kennard through business and has met Luke’s mother at a basketball game.

“Mark has always been a big Kentucky fan. I know he would be thrilled if Luke decided to go to Kentucky. He’s also told me about a lot of his experiences at Michigan, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Ohio State,” Green said. “The Ohio State-Duke game last year, he and Luke sat in the first row next to Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. I think that it will boil down to what he and his wife feel will be the best fit for Luke, regardless of his passion for Kentucky.”

Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard

By LARRY VAUGHT

Ohio guard Luke Kennard was so impressive with the King James Shooting Stars during summer AAU play that his recruitment took off in  July when he got offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Ohio State, Duke, Michigan and North Carolina. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman even named Kennard as one of his favorite players to watch on the AAU circuit.

The Franklin, Ohio, guard impressed coaches with his ability to finish with either hand as well as his defense. He’s a 6-6 combo guard with excellent range on his jump shot.

His family has Kentucky roots — his grandfather was a basketball star at Paintsville High School and his father played basketball at Georgetown College — and Franklin has a bevvy of UK fans living there who appreciate Kennard for more than just his basketball and football skills (he’s also the starting quarterback on the football team with several Division I offers, including Louisville).

“I had Luke in elementary school in physical education class. At the time, I could tell he would be a good player but his freshman year he was better than what I thought he would be,” said Kenny Smith, a long-time fan who attended the Ohio UK Convention in Middletown, Ohio, last month. “He has got all the skills and things that you can’t teach a kid.

“He has great demeanor and keeps his cool on the court no matter if it is a bad call against him or somebody hacked him. He just kept the same coolness and gave the ball to the official and ran down the court. That impressed me. The second thing that impressed me is he never looks into the stands for his family’s approval like a lot of kids today do.”

Mike Daulton has a son a year younger than Kennard who plays basketball at nearby Monroe High School, so he’s seen Kennard play.

“I am very impressed with him. I think he is as good a football player as he is basketball player. He is just a very intelligent player on the football field and basketball court,” Daulton said.

Luke Kennard photo by E.L. Hubbard photography

Luke Kennard photo by E.L. Hubbard photography

“He penetrates to the basket very well. I think he could play point guard or shooting guard. He is a general on the court. He is a smooth operator. He is very humble. He doesn’t get overly excited. He doesn’t try to show off on the court. He is almost a true gentleman on the court. He lets his basketball do the talking for him, but he’s a leader. He is a silent leader, really.”

Linda Heagen and her husband are both retired Franklin physical education teachers — and both are very sports minded.

“When Mark, Luke’s father, was in seventh grade, he played basketball and was very good. We followed them and even worked the games. Through high school we went to all the home and away games. Then Mark went to Georgetown (College) in Kentucky and we would go down there and watch him play,” Heagen said. “He has a brother that played in Indiana and one time we went to Ashland, Ohio, to watch Todd and then straight to Georgetown to watch Mark.

“Mark is like my third son, and he knows that. I told him people have asked me (about where Luke will go to school) and I tell them don’t listen to all these rumors. Mark doesn’t tell me everything, but besides his family I know that he tells me a lot. Mark always calls me Mrs. Heagen and I have asked him to call me Linda, but he said, ‘Mrs. Heagen I can’t. I have to call you Mrs. Heagen.’ He also said he did tell me everything.

“Luke’s parents have kept him grounded. Mark has always said no matter what he does, he has got to keep working. That’s the way he has been brought up. We were there a couple of weeks ago and were just talking to them and Luke sat there and didn’t tell us all that happened with the different college coaches. He just sits there and smiles. It’s unbelievable.”

Smith says Kennard’s natural instincts on the basketball court are uncanny.

“He can get to the basketball for rebounds, something you can’t teach a kid. He comes by that naturally. He has what you don’t teach. I call him Cool Hand Luke because he is a cool kid on the court and knows what he is doing,” Smith said.

Daulton remembers a time he thought Kennard excelled just because he was bigger than others his size.

“He has always been taller than kids he’s played against and when you saw him as 6-3 eighth-grader running the court and he was just so much bigger and stronger looking, he was on a different level and I didn’t know how he would do against competition his own size,” Daulton said. “But when you watched him, you could always see his intelligence and his passing ability. That is what impresses me the most. I think he would be a great fit for Cal (John Calipari) and that Cal would love coaching him because he would be an extension of Cal out there.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Even without Andrew Wiggins there still should not be any doubt that Kentucky has assembled the nation’s all-time best recruiting class.

Kentucky coach John Calipari still has a record six McDonald’s All-Americans — Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee — in this recruiting class. And don’t forget that junior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore Alex Poythress were both McDonald’s All-Americans.

So there’s no shortage of talent for next year. Remember, sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein is also being mentioned as a possible NBA draft lottery pick and freshmen Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis have unique talents of their own. Plus, with no Wiggins, it should clear the way for both Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood to stay on scholarship one more year.

“The immediate impact of Kentucky getting Wiggins is that this is without doubt the greatest recruiting class of all time,” said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy. “There’s no more room for argument about that.”

“Kentucky has got the No. 1 player (in the recruiting class) at every position on the floor except for Wiggins in a highly talented class,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “There are certain years you could get the No. 1 guys and still not have an extraordinary year like the 2008-09 group. But this is a very highly talented group. You could take Andrew Wiggins out of this class and put Jabari Parker or Julius Randle No. 1 and it would still be very strong. Kentucky will still have overwhelming strength and athleticism at every position. ”

And as I suggested about a month ago, Kentucky’s chemistry could be better without Wiggins. Not because Wiggins is a problem, but because even Calipari can only work so much magic with a loaded roster. He has guys that expect to play, and should play.

The Harrison twins and Randle are all dynamic, forceful leaders. Johnson, Lee and Young all seem to be team-oriented, not me-oriented, players.

Cauley-Stein will be a leader in a less intense way than the Harrisons or Randle. Poythress may not be a vocal leader, but he’ll be a better player. And Wiltjer’s experience on and off the court could be invaluable to the freshmen.

Wiggins would have been a terrific addition. But let Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch put this in perspective for UK fans. Here’s what he said when I asked him what impact not getting Wiggins would have on UK: “Zero. It’s still the best class of all time.”

And still likely more than enough to have UK ranked No. 1 going into next season — even without Wiggins.

 

 

uk footballBy LARRY VAUGHT

Leaving his mark is important for Cincinnati’s Jaleel Hytchye. That’s why he’s “grinding” his way through track season now in hopes of winning a state championship before he heads to Kentucky to try and help rejuvenate the football program under new coach Mark Stoops.

“I am focusing on track, but I am lifting (weights) to get stronger and hopefully I’ll make a run at a state championship and leave a legacy as far as that goes,” Hytchye, a cornerback, said. “I am working out with my trainer.”

Track season has had “ups and downs” for him because he keeps aggravating a hamstring injury.

“It has been nagging me every time I step on the track,” Hytchye said.

Still, he has Ohio’s best time in the 100-meter dash and second best in the 200-meter dash — and he’s not run the 200 since the first meet of the track season.

“I have an opportunity to win state. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and fresh (for the state meet June 7-8),” Hytchye said.

That state meet will keep Hytchye from reporting to UK quite as early in June as some Stoops’ recruits, but he plans to be on campus by June 20.

“I came down for the spring game. I am actually part of the reason that (running back) Mikel Horton committed. I took him and (Conner quarterback) Drew Barker out to meet fans,” Hytchye said. “I got to meet a lot of folks. I knew that big crowd was coming. I have seen how great the Kentucky fans are. Once they get even more reason to believe, I know how passionate they are. It’s just a matter of giving them hope and Stoops gave them hope. I knew they would have a big turnout at the spring game. I am ready to rock and roll right now.”

What about UK’s chances with Barker, who will make his commitment public Friday?

“We’ve got to get him on the team,” Hytchye said.

Same goes for Hytchye’s teammate, receiver Derek Keif. He’s a 6-5 receiver who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and averaged 90 yards per game for LaSalle High School as a junior. He’s got offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame and Alabama.

“He’s interested in Kentucky. I think it is between them, Alabama and Ohio State,” Hytchye said. “I basically leave him alone, but I do try to influence him a bit. I don’t want him to think he should go to UK just because I did. But I have told him with the type player he is, he would thrive at Kentucky. It’s the perfect opportunity for him. He loves it, too. It’s just a matter that he wants to take his time. As he gets closer to a decision, I will talk to him more.”

Hytchye said practicing against Keif and other Division I receivers LaSalle has produced “is what got me better” the last few years. “I go agains the best every day. Not every high school player gets to do that,” Hytchye said. “Derek catches the ball so well. He has real good body control and is great at catching the ball. He’ll be great in college.”

That’s why Hytchye has worked so hard to get Keif and others to Kentucky. He was the first player to verbally commit to UK after Stoops was hired. Hytchye — his father is Cuban and that’s where his name come froms — became a fan favorite on Twitter (his screen name is @TheRealLeel_9). He’s ranked as one of the nation’s top 50 cornerbacks by some recruiting services and has run the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. He had scholarship offers from Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Purdue, and Vanderbilt as well others.

“I feel even better about Kentucky now than I did then,” Hytchye said. “It felt right for me and I wanted to be the first high school commit and be the one to get it rolling for the rest of the class. I know I have a shot to play and make early contributions. I have a lot of goals set in the SEC to make a name for myself on campus. I don’t think I could have made a better decision.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Rather than feel miffed over not getting an immediate scholarship offer from Kentucky, Bowling Green receiver Nacarius Fant is more than willing to come to UK’s camp on June 8 and show what he can do. Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown recently watched Fant practice and told him he liked his “footwork” and other things.

“He wants me to come to camp June 8 and compete against SEC type cornerbacks in the 2014 (recruiting) class,” said Fant. “Once he sees that — and he has to make sure I am the type receiver he’s looking for — and I prove I can play one on one versus elite players, then the offer will come.

“I don’t want to be bragging or sounding cocky. But I am a confident person and very competitive person. I am really looking forward to June 8 and showing what I can do.”

Bowling Green coach Kevin Wallace believes the 5-9 1/2, 175-pound Fant, a three-star recruit, says Fant “is gifted with great ball skills” and a special player.

“He has an unusual talent of having the awareness of how to put his body in position to get to the football. He is attentive to detail, is very coachable and makes good use of video to aid his improvement,” Wallace said. “Nacarius has a good blend of confidence and desire to improve, a necessary combination to play at an elite level.

He’s not a big player, but Wallace says that does not deter him on the field.

“He understands how to get open, catches the football and has great ability to make players miss in the open field,” the Bowling Green coach said. “As he gets stronger, I thinks his speed will improve. Both of those ingredients will help him as his career continues.”

Fant has scholarship offers from Western Kentucky and Illinois. He’s heard from Louisville, Indiana, Cincinnati and Purdue. He expects more teams to make contact soon.

“I’m going to the Louisville camp the week after the Kentucky camp and I am trying to get into the Tennessee camp, too,” Fant said. “The camps are a great chance to show what I can do. I’ve been invited to several, so I just have to decide which ones are best for me.”

Fant, who grew up a fan of former Florida great Percy Harvin, list footwork, good hands and how to fend off defenders as his strengths.

“People are surprised with how I can go up and get the ball for my size,” Fant said. “I love to go get the ball.”

He’s had ankle issues and recently ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds at a combine.

“I am not a combine guy and not really a 40-yard dash guy,” Fant said. “I am not as fast as some, but I use other weapons to get away from defenders. I think I play way faster than my 40 time shows. I like people to see me in person on the field and see the way I play rather than judge me based on a time.

“Me and coach Brown talked about my speed. The only thing that worries him is me going against SEC players. We don’t have Division I players playing cornerback here. That’s why he wants to see how I do at camp. But that’s fine because any receiver would want to play in that Air Raid offense.”

uk footballBy LARRY VAUGHT

Ohio receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass had several big-name football programs that wanted him to make campus visits. Instead, he ended his recruitment by announcing Friday he would sign with Kentucky in February.

“You could almost predict it because that was the place he visited the most and kept coming back for more,” said Springfield High School coach Eric Gillespie. “He liked the school, the staff, the players. I try to give my kids a perspective of how important a life decision this is and all the factors that should go into it. Some kids love all the attention that goes with this today, some don’t.

“I try to tell my kids this is not just a football decision. You have to fit on the campus, have to be able to get the major you want. How far is it to the school. I presented all those questions to him so he could make a well-informed decision because everywhere he was looking at had great facilities, good coaches. But he told me, ‘I’ve seen enough.’ That’s when I knew Kentucky was it for him.”

The 6-1 Snodgrass, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, is ranked among the nation’s top 200 prospects and is the highest ranked receiver ever to commit to UK. He had narrowed his choices to South Carolina, Louisville, Virginia and Kentucky before picking the Cats.

“Kids in general are not real history buffs and don’t romanticize about football like I did as a kid. So I don’t know if he’s even aware he’s the highest rated receiver to ever commit there,” Gillespie said. “I think he just liked everybody and feels this is the right spot for him.

“I also think the distance to Lexington is good for him. We are in the heart of Big Ten country, but we are two hours away from a SEC school. That is a rarity and made a difference with him. He’s away from home playing in the SEC, but he can also get in his car and get home for a weekend if he has a break.”

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s offense also helped sway Snodgrass, who did attend the Blue-White Game Saturday after making his verbal commitment a day earlier.

“He did mention how much he likes the offense,” Gillespie said.

The coach says Snodgrass’ commitment to Kentucky was well received by Springfield fans.

“Kentucky resonates here. Kids from here think Kentucky is big-time,” Gillespie said. “They really have a (recruiting) platform to build on here and I think coach (Mark) Stoops understands that. If UK walks in, it means a lot more than if Indiana or Illinois (out of the Big Ten) does. Kentucky creates a buzz here.”

Since Snodgrass cannot sign with the Wildcats until February, other schools likely will continue to recruit him and hope to change his mind. Recently Alabama linebacker Denzel Ware withdrew his verbal commitment to UK. However, Gillespie thinks Snodgrass “is done” and does not expect him to attend camps or combines this summer.

“I told him to be sure when he made his choice. Now as long as nothing changes on Kentucky’s end, nothing should change on his end,” the coach said. “He needs to be true to his word and will. It’s not legally binding, but you should stand by your commitment. If Kentucky goes to the Wishbone or a position coach leaves, then that’s different. But if nothing changes at Kentucky, he will stay committed.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

What is Andrew Wiggins going to do? Is the Huntington (W.Va.) Prep standout going to pick Kentucky, Florida State,  North Carolina or Kansas?

Wiggins has set no timetable for when he might pick a school, and a source close to him says that decision might not come quite as quickly as some are expecting from the nation’s top-ranked prep player.

“I can make arguments for why he might pick any of his four final choices. At the end of the day I think that Andrew will choose based on his comfort level with the school and the coaches,” the source said. “I have no idea how he’s leaning. No one knows but Andrew and he may not know yet.  I think it will still be some time before he’s ready to announce a decision. He has some big games coming up and I think he will be focused on those for the next few weeks.”

Wiggins will play in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago Wednesday. He has the Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit to follow later in April.

However, don’t doubt that UK fans in the Huntington area could help influence Wiggins’ decision.

“The BBN is alive and well in Huntington and the Tri-state area. I think even non-Kentucky fans would enjoy seeing Andrew at Kentucky because it will make it easy to follow him in college. Canada is his home but I think he has enjoyed his time in Huntington.  I hope being close to his second home will be a plus in the Kentucky column,” the source said.

“Andrew is well deserving of all the accolades he has received. He’s a phenomenally skilled athlete and player. He makes big plays look easy. I’ve seen him play now for two years and am still amazed by what he does. It’s fun to bring someone to a game who has never seen him and see their reactions. We will be watching Andrew Wiggins highlights for years to come.  Off the court he’s a sweetheart. Can’t help but want to see him succeed.”

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