In battle of bluebloods, can UK land the top available post player in the 2018 class?

Following E.J. Montgomery’s decision to call off his commitment to the Auburn basketball program in late September, there were months of relative silence about the status of his recruitment.

He popped up at Clemson and Vanderbilt for unofficial visits, but the 6-foot-10 power forward out of Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., didn’t say much about which schools were serious suitors.

The past few weeks have delivered some clarity.

Montgomery — now the top uncommitted post player in the class of 2018 — was on North Carolina’s campus for an unofficial visit Monday night. He’ll be at Duke for an unofficial visit Wednesday night. And then he’s got a trip to Kentucky for an unofficial visit — centered on the Cats’ game against Missouri — next Saturday.

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“It’s pretty clear that he’s starting to dive into the process a little more,” said 247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels, who first reported Montgomery’s plans to visit Lexington.

Montgomery backed off of his commitment to Auburn in the fall after that program was mentioned as part of the federal investigation into college basketball. Tigers assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested, two of the school’s star players were suspended, and Coach Bruce Pearl ended up losing his top recruit as a result.

“I just didn’t want to be a part of that,” Montgomery told USA Today recently.

Late last month, he released a new list of 11 schools: UK, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Georgetown, Georgia, South Carolina, Southern Cal, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.

For the time being, he’s still considering all 11 schools.

“I don’t know that there’s a favorite,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “Obviously, he’s taking three unofficial visits in a pretty short span, to three bluebloods. So, outside looking in, maybe those three schools are higher priorities on his list. But I admittedly don’t know if there’s a favorite.”

Duke already has the No. 1-ranked class in the country — featuring R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson, the top three national prospects for next season, plus Tre Jones, the No. 1 point guard in the class — and the Blue Devils were the first school to schedule an unofficial visit with Montgomery after he announced his new school list.

That timing — along with Duke’s recent recruiting success — led to several predictions in favor of the Blue Devils on Montgomery’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page.

“Maybe that means something. But I don’t really know if there’s a leader or not,” said Daniels, who has not made a Crystal Ball prediction for Montgomery yet.

UK fans are well past the point of being sick and tired of losing to Duke for high-profile prospects in this class, and the flurry of Blue Devils predictions — just days after it was confirmed that Kentucky was indeed interested in Montgomery — led to more consternation among those who follow the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.

It’s far too early for UK to give up hope, however.

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“I don’t think that they would take a visit to Kentucky if there weren’t a possibility of him wanting to go there,” Daniels said.

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This recruitment likely won’t end anytime soon. Daniels added that Montgomery and his family have indicated that he will take his official visits, too, which means possible return trips to Lexington, Durham, Chapel Hill and maybe other campuses.

Though no timetable for a college decision has been set, Montgomery has mentioned “late spring” in past interviews. That leaves plenty of time and opportunity for UK.

John Calipari and top assistant coach Kenny Payne were at Wheeler High to see Montgomery last week. Payne had also been at the school a few days earlier (and Calipari likely would have joined him for that trip had he not been sidelined with an illness that week).

UK is clearly serious in its pursuit of Montgomery — the No. 6 overall player in the latest 247Sports rankings — and he’d be a talented addition to the Wildcats’ frontcourt for next season, no matter who returns from the current squad.

Among post players in the 2018 rankings, Montgomery is second only to Oregon signee Bol Bol.

“What I’ve noticed differently this year is he’s changed his mentality and his approach,” Daniels said of Montgomery. “He’s playing harder. He’s playing more inside. He’s being effective as a rebounder. He’s always had impressive physical tools — he has the size, the length, the athleticism, the mobility.

“I think the light’s just coming on for him, and he’s been really impressive when I’ve seen him during his senior season.”

Montgomery is averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds per game for Wheeler this season. He’s already been named to the McDonald’s All-American Game in March.

A skilled, versatile prospect, Montgomery would bring a different dimension to UK’s frontcourt than what some recent Wildcats post players have offered.

“He has the ability to step out on the floor and drive guys or make jump shots,” Daniels said. “But I think, early in his career, he got a little married to that. What I really about him (now) is that he’s blending his ability to post and score around the basket, and then stepping out some. When he starts inside and works his way out, he’s at his best.

“I think his mentality and his physical tools and his skill would allow him to be a major-impact contributor from day one, wherever he chooses.”

Ben Roberts: 859-231-3216, @BenRobertsHL

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