When Nike's EYBL tour rolled into Lexington, Ky., in late April to kick off spring evaluation period in the weird world of college basketball recruiting, St. Louis Eagles wing Jayson Tatum found himself as the star of the show.
This was nothing out of the ordinary for Tatum, who might be the most coveted high school basketball player in the country right now. As fans decked out in Kentucky blue sweatshirts packed into the cramped gym to watch Tatum play, the entire scene took on a bit of a surreal quality. The Wildcats are one of four schools Tatum is considering and everyone in the building knew it. They showed up not just to see Tatum play, but because they wanted Tatum to see them.
If the Wildcats' logo wasn't a prerequisite for admission into the event, it sure felt like it. In scanning the crowd, though, you would occasionally notice a few different shades of blue. Those would be the Duke fans who traveled to Lexington to let Tatum know that, hey, we care about you, too.
Tatum is the latest and perhaps most high profile example yet of the recruiting war that's being waged right now between the two most glamorous programs in college basketball, Duke and Kentucky. John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski stand out over every other coach in the country when it comes to recruiting blue chip prospects, and it's what's made their programs the most successful in the sport.
Lest anyone wants to discount the impact of recruiting: Coach K's Duke team just won the national title by getting 60 of its 68 points from a foursome of five-star freshmen in the championship game. Calipari just got done coaching a Kentucky team with nine McDonald's All-Americans to the best start in the history of the sport at 38-0. Basketball is almost always decided by talent and no one attracts talent quite like Duke and Kentucky.
Calipari and Krzyzewski have been at this for a while now. Julius Randle once cut Duke from his list and chose Kentucky; Justise Winslow turned down a Kentucky offer to go to Duke. Many don't immediately think of Duke as a one-and-done powerhouse in the same vein as the Wildcats, but Coach K has repositioned himself to compete for top players with Calipari every year. Credit his USA Basketball experience in coaching the best players in the world or the realization that talent is always a safer bet than experience.
Whatever the reason, it feels like the largely unspoken Duke-Kentucky rivalry is just starting to heat up.
Before there was Jayson Tatum, there was Brandon Ingram. Ingram is a North Carolina native who shot up the class rankings in 2015 with a freakish combination of length and shooting. If he's nowhere near the player Kevin Durant is right now, he at least looks like him. Ingram -- one of the youngest players in his class -- profited greatly from waiting until the spring to commit. As his profile rose, the recruiting battle between Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina only gained more attention.
All three schools would have plugged Ingram into the starting lineup from Day 1. Eventually, Duke won out. It prompted questions over whether Kentucky's platoon last season hurt Calipari in recruiting even as he brings in a top three class headlined by Skal Labissiere, arguably the best NBA prospect in college ball next season. Duke, meanwhile, seems to have as much recruiting momentum as ever even as Coach K pushes towards his 70th birthday.
That's the thing about trying to make your college basketball team into a one-and-done NBA factory: it only works if you never take a year off. Kentucky just lost seven players to the NBA, while Coach K reloaded on the fly after his top three freshmen each turned pro to be sure-fire first round draft picks. Players like Ingram and Tatum are so important because there's not much behind them. Calipari and Krzyzewski are each betting big on their ability to land the best players every year, without fail.
Tatum's decision is reportedly coming 'either this month or next month', and it will set the tone for what each program looks like going forward. He's not the only class of 2016 star weighing both schools. Lanky big man Harry Giles is every bit as touted as Tatum and he's considering Duke and Kentucky, too. Tatum and Giles are so talented that if a team lands both of them, it's almost guaranteed to be preseason No. 1 in 2016-17. The stakes are that high.
This isn't stopping any time soon, either. Earlier this week, Duke joined Kentucky in offering five-star prospect Marvin Bagley, an Arizona native in the class of 2018 who just finished his freshman year of high school. Bagley may be the top player in his class, and that distinction means something even at such a young age. Most notably: it means you'll be receiving interest from Duke and Kentucky.
North Carolina will always be the natural rival for Duke and Louisville will always be that for Kentucky, but the most interesting subplot in college hoops might be what's happening between Calipari and Coach K right now off the court. Kentucky can only be Kentucky and Duke can only be Duke if each gets the best of the best talent. Here, there's no honor in coming in second.