Presumed Johnell Davis Bidding War Shows How Large of Onus Is on Calipari to Change

John Calipari, Johnell Davis, Arkansas basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Kentucky Athletics / FAU Athletics

John Calipari has made a name and a brand for himself over the years with a roster-building model centered around turning blue-chip recruits into lottery picks, but his most important back-court target at Arkansas shows how the transfer portal has flipped the college basketball landscape on its head.

Florida Atlantic guard Johnell Davis, who visited Arkansas Wednesday night through Thursday, is the latest transfer that Calipari is attempting to lure in. In fact, Arkansas is the current favorite to land his services, according to Field of 68’s Jeff Goodman and 247Sports’ Travis Branham. Indeed, Pig Trail Nation’s Kevin McPherson has gone so far as to say he believes that Davis is essentially a silent commitment to Arkansas at this point.

Freshman Zvonimir Ivisic, along with McDonald’s All Americans Karter Knox and Boogie Fland, as well as Billy Richmond, are the Razorbacks’ first four commitments in this cycle. Beyond that, Coach Cal is pursuing some experience in his recruitment of the 6-foot-4 senior.

Davis has spent the last four seasons with the Owls, and played a key role in their Final Four run in 2023. Last year, he averaged 18.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He also shot 41.4% from three point range and 85.7% from the free throw line. Davis’ efforts earned him the honor of the American Conference Player of the Year.

The Gary, IN, native’s experience and all-around game has made him one of the most sought-after pieces in the portal. On3 Sports ranks him as the top available transfer and Calipari has apparently treated him as such given he flew out this past weekend to visit him personally according to sources of HawgSports’ Connor Goodson.

Johnell Davis Represents What Wins in March

The recruitment of Davis shows John Calipari’s acceptance of a changing world when it comes to roster-building in college hoops. While the Hall of Famer will never stop recruiting blue-chip freshmen, making the FAU senior a priority is a step in the right direction for Arkansas’ prospective March success.

Even before the addition of the first four scholarship Razorbacks for the upcoming season, Arkansas was widely considered one of the top 8 programs in the nation in terms of 2025 NCAA championship odds, according to online casino sites.

Davis was a zero-star recruit out of high school that has not played in a Power 6 conference. He’ll turn 23 years old in May, which makes his NBA prospects a long shot. And yet, the rumored price for his services is in the $1.4 million range. Other schools in the mix have reportedly been Michigan (though that’s almost certainly over now) and Kentucky. Pig Trail Nation’s Courtney Mims says that she has heard through the “grapevine” that an NIL bidding war has likely escalated between the Razorbacks and Wildcats.

How does such a stratospheric price tag compute?

Simply put, experienced lead guards who can craftily manufacture points as you see in the clip below are at a premium.

This era of college basketball is closer to the college basketball of 40+ years ago in that teams which go far in March have one such experienced hand headlining their starting lineup. Look no further than Alabama’s Mark Sears, another stocky guard who was an unheralded high school recruit. He transferred to the Tide from Ohio University, and led them to the Final Four a few weeks ago.

Davis’ NIL valuation for his last season of college eligibility shows the importance of having a steady, mature hand as a lead guard if you’re trying to build a championship team in the modern era. It also shows the kind of money that definitively sway someone from trying to become a second-round NBA Draft pick, as Davis would like be if he enters this year’s draft.

Johnell Davis was anything but a five-star recruit out of high school, and he doesn’t come from a blue blood school. He also doesn’t have the unicorn front-court appeal to NBA scouts like last year’s top mid-major transfer, Grant Nelson, did. The 6-foot-11 forward ended up alongside Sears on the Crimson Tide, despite heavy interest from Eric Musselman.

The arms race for Duke transfer Jeremy Roach also shows the value placed on these portal prospects, though the point guard cast doubts on the rumored seven-figure sum for his commitment. Roach ended up deciding to play for Baylor next season.

“Having kids still playing our game that are 25, 26 and 27 years old, where they would be professionals under any other circumstances, is tough,” Calipari told Fox Sports last year. “If you graduate and you want to transfer, that’s fine. But for kids in their seventh year of school now, come on. It’s not healthy for an 18 or 19-year-old to be playing against somebody that old.”

It’s clear that Calipari is aware that the days of true freshman guards like John Wall and Tyler Ulis leading teams to the Final Four are long gone in the new era of grad transfers and COVID years that allow for upperclassmen to prolong their college careers. Arkansas going hard after Davis, and the paying of a premium his signature would almost certainly entail, shows an adaptation to this new climate.

Finding Right Transfer Portal Recipe for Success

The trick now for John Calipari is finding the right blend of talented youth and hardened experience.

“Cal is obviously the master at being able to attract people and recruit kids and put together young teams in the past,” Stetson coach Donnie Jones said. “But now everybody wants an old team, so where do you find that happy mix?”

The addition of a veteran junkyard dog like Davis would go a long way towards creating that happy mix. Calipari went for talented youngsters with his first two roster additions, and we should expect plenty more of that as the offseason progresses. Davis, though, would be critical in bringing toughness to the team and helping to bring out the best of these talented young bucks. His Final Four experience also brings valuable leadership qualities that can’t be taught.

On the youthful front, Calipari has been busy this week. Arkansas has been hosting two blue-chip recruits for visits on Wednesday in five-star point guard Boogie Fland and four-star wing Billy Richmond III.

On Wednesday night, Fland was foreshadowing his commitment by getting in some nonchalant self alley-oop attempts in the Hogs’ practice facility:

DJ Wagner, a Kentucky transfer that was one of the top recruits in the class of 2024, is in the transfer portal, with Arkansas heavily in the mix. 247Sports’ Eric Bossi listed the Razorbacks as the favorite in that race, but in order to nab Wagner the Hogs will need to to out-recruit none other than Eric Musselman, the former Arkansas basketball head man.

USC has emerged as a strong contender for Wagner (thought to be dating USC star JuJu Watkins), who will visit Musselman’s new program before he sets foot in Fayetteville.

The combination of two McDonald’s All Americans in Fland and Wagner with a seasoned upperclassman like Davis would make for a dangerous backcourt. Scouting reports of both Fland and Wagner cite their comfort both on and off the ball. Fland’s elite shooting makes him a significant offensive threat even without the ball in his hands, and Wagner got comfortable off-ball while sharing point guard duties with soon-to-be lottery pick Rob Dillingham at Kentucky.

UConn As a Template for Arkansas Basketball?

The back-to-back national champion UCONN Huskies are a great example of what Calipari is going for here. Head coach Dan Hurley’s backcourt duo this season featured Stephon Castle, a true freshman and a top ten recruit, and Tristen Newton, a zero-star recruit turned 1st-Team All American. Having three combo guards that are all comfortable with and without the rock is a good recipe for success, especially given the mix of talent and experience that the trio brings.

It’s ironic that Calipari, the man who ushered in the one-and-done era that dominated college hoops for more than a decade, now must adapt to the latest changing of the guard in the recruiting landscape.

After several consecutive postseason shortcomings got him run out of town at Kentucky, Coach Cal and Razorback boosters are now ready to splash the cash. Targeting a veteran like Davis shows that, out of necessity, his roster-building model has had to evolve to catch up with the times.


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