3 Wildcats that Kentucky basketball needs to bring back for the 2024-25 season

Kentucky basketball needs to get older. John Calipari knows this, and he can start by retaining some of the young talent he's brought to Lexington over the past few years, before attacking the transfer portal.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) and Kentucky forward Adou Thiero (3)
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) and Kentucky forward Adou Thiero (3) / Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY
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The one-and-done era of college basketball isn’t gone for good, but it’s no longer the best path for teams to win championships and in many cases for players to prepare for the league. This year, John Calipari went back to his one-and-done roots with a freshman class that included Justin Edwards, DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Rob Dillingham, and Reed Sheppard, but only two of those five players currently project to be first-round NBA draft picks. 

Dillingham and Sheppard will almost certainly be selected in the lottery, so the chances of the Reed and Rob backcourt running it back in Lexington are slim to none, and a whole lot closer to none. With both likely in the NBA next season, and Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell out of eligibility, what players does Coach Cal need to bring back for the Wildcats to be competitive next season? 

Kentucky is bringing in the No. 2 freshman class in the country for the 2024-25 season, but in his media appearances since the Oakland upset in Pittsburgh, Coach Cal has extolled the virtues of experience in March and expressed a desire for his team to get older. That happens through the transfer portal, which Calipari will likely attack with new vigor, but it also happens by keeping your top talent on campus for multiple years. 

So, Kentucky needs to bring these three players back for a shot at a national title in 2025. You’ll notice pretty quickly that this list doesn’t include Wagner, one of the five-star prizes of the 2023 recruiting class. Wagner was a solid freshman point guard, averaging 9.9 points and 3.3 assists, but shot just 40.5% from the field and his mere presence represented this program's terminal illness.

Calipari has turned Kentucky basketball into a me-first NBA pipeline, prioritizing personal brand and draft stock over postseason success. Closed-door handshake deals kept Wagner in the starting lineup over Sheppard, not his performance, and for Kentucky ever to perform to its lofty standard again, that culture has to be eradicated. If Kentucky won’t move on from Cal, then Cal moving on from Wagner would at least be a small step in the right direction. 

That’s not to say that it’s even Wagner’s fault. As an elite high school player, he earned the status and the leverage to get a guaranteed starting spot, which is what appears to have happened and the only logical explanation for Calipari’s stubbornness with the starting five. It’s Calipari’s fault for giving in to that request or demand because once the meritocracy of sport is forfeited, the politics poison the program. 

Wagner could still develop into a winning player and an NBA prospect, but it shouldn’t happen at Kentucky. If the goal is to finally win championships, not dominate draft day, then Coach Cal needs to prioritize retaining these three players this offseason. 

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