KANSAS CITY, Mo. – If their Sunday Elite Eight games come down to the final shot, it would be no surprise to see Duke’s Zion Williamson or Kentucky’s Tyler Herro have the ball in their hands.
Almost two years ago, Kentucky coach John Calipari faced the decision of which of the two NCAA tournament stars to visit on a recruiting trip.
With Williamson’s recruitment trending away from Kentucky, Calipari elected to accompany associate head coach Kenny Payne to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to visit the less-heralded Herro, who had recently decommitted from Wisconsin.
“When you’re doing what I do and as hard as this is here and as much as you have to do in a short period of time, you don’t have a whole lot of time for B.S.,” Calipari said. “You just don’t. You have to keep it real. The only kind of guys that really will be into that are the guys that really want to play for us. … The word came back that that was the case with Tyler.”
Payne said he did not specifically remember who else Calipari was considering visiting that day — Kentucky assistant Joel Justus made the visit to see Williamson — but neither he nor Calipari had trouble remembering the impact the trip to watch Herro work out at Whitnall High School made on them.
“I just know that Tyler Herro’s family was excited about Kentucky,” Payne said. “Tyler deserved to be in a program where it’s about his growth, his development, his dreams; not just about a program, but about him as well. He articulated that to us at an early stage.
“When we went to watch him work out and practice, it was obvious ball-handling was really good, shooting was really good. You can tell he’s a gym rat. The coach was a great guy and super man that pushed him. It was a fit. You could just look at it and see it was a fit.”
Like every program in college basketball not named Duke, Kentucky almost certainly would be improved if Williamson were on its roster this season.
But assuming Williamson was headed to another program regardless of who Calipari visited that day, the Kentucky coaches can take solace in having made the decision to pursue a player who has been key in the Wildcats’ tournament run.
In the second-round against No. 7 seed Wofford, Herro was credited with shutting down Terriers star guard Fletcher Magee, the NCAA’s record-holder for made 3-pointers. Against No. 3 seed Houston in the Sweet 16, he scored a team-high 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 25 seconds remaining.
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He then hit the game-clinching free throws with 13 seconds on the clock.
“The more I was around him, I said this kid reminds me of some of the guys we have,” Calipari said. “I didn’t know how he worked the way he did. His work ethic is unbelievable. … He has the confidence, but it’s not fake. I’ve had guys that you’ve had to explain what it means to be fake confident, like, your swagger is fake, you haven’t earned it, you haven’t worked for it. You haven’t done enough things to have that, and you’re acting like you have it.
“This guy has earned his stripes.”
Herro was pigeon-holed as a jump shooter as a recruit, but he has proved to be far more than that at Kentucky.
As he has developed a versatile offensive game and grown on defense to the point where Kentucky now considers one of its go-to defenders, Herro has seen his stock as a NBA draft prospect soar. ESPN now projects him as a first-round selection, likely signaling an end to his Kentucky career after just one year.
It’s not quite the No. 1 selection, where Williamson is projected to be picked in June, but it is more than most analysts would have predicted for Herro as a four-star prospect in high school.
“I knew Tyler was a hell of a player, knew that he loved the game, knew that he was a gym rat,” Payne said. “A lot of this for Tyler is since he’s been here is development, of not allowing anybody to say you’re just a shooter. You’re a basketball player.”
Herro said he knew ahead of time Calipari would visit him that October day, despite conflicting media reports at the time about whether the UK coach was flying to South Carolina to see Williamson as well or instead of making the trip to Wisconsin.
He’s glad it worked out the way it did.
“I just remember him walking in the gym and all my fellow classmates going all crazy because he walked into school,” Herro said. “It was just kind of a dream come true seeing him walk in my gym, watch me workout. He came back to my house and offered me a scholarship, and I knew I was going to go there that day.”