A Twist Emerges in Recruiting Tug-of-War Between Calipari and Musselman

John Calipari, DJ Wagner, Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball, USC basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Kentucky Athletics / Kentucky Athletics / Craven Whitlow

For a while there, it looked like Arkansas and Eric Musselman going their separate ways was going to be a “win-win” scenario with a happy ending.

Both Musselman and John Calipari have hit the ground running at their new schools, landing a handful of marquee transfers and recruits in the last few weeks, and fans of both programs seem to be content with how the coaching carousel ended up spinning.

But the latest transfer portal tug-of-war appears to be pitting the former Head Hog against his successor.

When Kentucky guard DJ Wagner hit the transfer portal, Arkansas immediately emerged as the favorite to land him, with the popular expectation being that he would follow Calipari to Fayetteville.

Instead, Wagner’s first visit reportedly happened this past weekend with a trip to USC to talk with Arkansas’ former head coach.

Family Ties at Arkansas

The appeal for DJ Wagner to Arkansas is simple. Two words – John Calipari. The Wagner family’s connections to the Hall of Fame coach span three generations and more than two decades. DJ’s father, Dajuan Wagner, played for Calipari at Memphis as a one-and-done talent that ended up being selected No. 6 overall in the 2002 NBA Draft.

While Dajuan was at Memphis, his father, Milt, was on the staff as director of basketball operations. The widespread impression that Calipari hired the eldest Wagner to lure in the son caused quite the waves back then.

None of that really involves DJ Wagner per se, so the decision to sign with Kentucky and be coached by the man who made his dad a millionaire was likely an easy one. But it seems that the second edition of his recruitment may prove more tricky for Calipari.

USC Appeal Has Interesting Caveat

On its face, USC is a pretty appealing destination for basketball talent. There’s a reason that blue-chip prospects like Evan Mobley, Isaiah Collier and Bronny James have signed with the Trojans in recent years. The allure of living in Los Angeles is probably at the top of that list – as Eric Musselman can attest.

For DJ Wagner, it would also bring the opportunity to be the true No. 1 option on a contending team. Last season at Kentucky, he had to share backcourt minutes with soon-to-be lottery picks Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard. With the newest edition of the Arkansas basketball team, he would have to compete with five-star freshman point guard Boogie Fland and No. 1 transfer Johnell Davis.

The latter of those officially committed to the Razorbacks on Wednesday and is widely expected to be a major part of the backcourt in his final year of collegiate eligibility. He is an experienced guard coming off a season in which he was named AAC co-Player of the Year and helped Florida Atlantic make the Final Four in 2023. It would be tough to surpass him in the pecking order.

That said, Wagner entered college with sky-high expectations as a McDonald’s All-American and the nation’s No. 6 overall prospect, according to both Rivals and 247Sports. Indeed, at one point during his senior season he was considered the No. 1 player in the class of 2023 and even signed a Nike NIL deal alongside the likes of Bronny James, Caitlin Clark and JuJu Watkins.

But his freshman season in Lexington was a mixed bag thanks to a combination of injury problems, sharing minutes with other blue-chip prospects and the steep learning curve of college hoops. After that experience, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he wanted a change of scenery to try and harness his full potential.

The 2023-24 campaign wasn’t a bad year, by any means, as he still averaged 9.9 points and 3.3 assists per game. But for a kid with one-and-done aspirations, he didn’t quite hit those lofty goals. Being the undisputed lead guard on Musselman’s first USC basketball team would certainly give him the platform to showcase his talent.

However, Wagner’s interest in USC might have to do with more than just men’s basketball. Last year, he attended prom with fellow five-star prospect JuJu Watkins, who lit it up on USC’s women’s team this season en route to first-team All-American honors. In true Hollywood fashion, they even made cameos in a Nike commercial together, as you can see starting at the 32-second mark here:

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Dating rumors have surrounded the two ever since, so the chance to be on the same campus as Watkins might sway his recruiting. Most Arkansas basketball fans probably want nothing to do with the words “dating” and “rumors” when it comes to their program after the drama of the last season, but here’s a situation where an actual verified relationship (whether it’s current or not) could influence the makeup of the new roster.

Current, Former Head Hogs Butt Heads for Wagner

Much of the offseason discourse on Arkansas’ recruiting battles has centered around the arm-wrestling matches between John Calipari and new Kentucky coach Mark Pope for many of the Wildcats’ signees and transfers. Despite what some Kentucky media may want to believe, it’s a matchup in Calipari still owns an edge despite Brandon Garrison choosing Kentucky (thanks to Jonas Aidoo deciding to head to Fayetteville).

But the recruitment of DJ Wagner presents a new story line and extra variable on the recruiting front – the chance for Musselman to be a thorn in his former school’s side by poaching a highly-touted transfer from right under Calipari’s nose.

Both coaches have elite recruiting reputations in the college basketball world – Calipari for his ability to land blue-chip high school recruits and Musselman for his ability to lure in elite transfers. Wagner’s portal entry is certainly putting both reputations to the test.

USC has the appeal of the west coast – and possibly the allure of love – on its side, while Arkansas has family ties and a higher basketball pedigree to tout.

By getting him on campus for an official visit, Musselman appears to have the initial leg up in this battle. It remains to be seen whether Calipari can play catch up, leveraging his extensive connections once again to land Wagner’s signature in the end.



Johnell Davis has officially committed to the Razorbacks. More on that:

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