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AP photo by Michael Woods / Kentucky men's basketball associate head coach Kenny Payne watches from the sideline after head coach John Calipari was ejected from a game at Arkansas on Jan. 18.

Did University of Tennessee men's basketball recruiting just win the lottery without a single commitment or coaching hire?

Maybe.

When longtime University Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne left the Wildcats' program for the National Basketball Association's New York Knicks on Tuesday, it may have done more than potentially weaken Big Blue. It may have provided Tennessee's Big Orange all it needs to land two of the nation's highest ranked recruits in Paolo Banchero and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield.

Before Tuesday, Banchero — the immensely talented 6-foot-9 senior power forward from Seattle — had been considered a heavy UK lean for nearly a year, and he may yet wind up in Lexington.

But most recruiting sites also have the Volunteers no worse than third for his services, at least partly because of his close friendship with point guard Kennedy Chandler, the Memphis native who's about to begin his senior season at Sunrise Christian in Kansas.

Kentucky has also been heavily recruiting Chandler, but the general feeling has been that if Chandler signs with an SEC school, it will be UT, at least partly because of Vols assistant Kim English, who has developed a strong relationship with him.

This is where Payne's move to the Knicks could hugely benefit the Vols, because Chandler and Banchero have previously discussed playing together in college. As long as Payne — long known as a gifted developer of post players — remained at UK, that pairing seemed improbable at best.

With Payne now out of the picture, and the Vols already high on Banchero's list, it's not so much of a stretch to see him join his summer-ball buddy Chandler in Knoxville.

Then there's Huntley-Hatfield, the 6-9 forward who grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, but will spend his junior year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The cousin of former Kentucky forward Alex Poythress, Huntley-Hatfield has been viewed as a Kentucky-committed recruit who was also expected to reclassify and join Banchero in the class of 2021.

But much like Banchero, Payne was thought to be an important reason for that decision, if only because of the coach's past with Poythress. With Payne gone and Huntley-Hatfield a Volunteer State native, UT could quickly supplant UK as the favorite for his signature.

There's also this: When noted national basketball writer Jeff Goodman recently called on Southeaster Conference coaches to help him compile his list of the league's six top assistant coaches, Payne was ranked No. 1. But the only school to place two assistants on that list was UT, and neither was the aforementioned Kim English.

The two named were Desmond Oliver and Michael Schwartz. which means that within a 14-team conference, the Vols had one-third of those honored. And this wasn't just Goodman's opinion. To get the list he reached out to more than 20 SEC coaches.

Everyone has long known what an excellent head coach UT's Rick Barnes is with X's and O's and player development. But maybe it's also time to praise his ability to spot coaching talent. When you're considered to have two of the top six assistants in the rugged SEC and the third guy, English, is believed to be the top reason you're the favorite to land the nation's best prep point guard, you obviously know how to put together a staff.

It's a long time until anyone signs anywhere. Due to COVID-19, it would not be a surprise for the NCAA to back up the early signing period well into 2021. And Kentucky is still Kentucky. Barnes may have beaten UK's John Calipari seven of the 12 times they've faced each other as UK-UT foes, but the Vols have yet to reach the Final Four even once as a program. Cal has taken Kentucky there four times in 11 seasons, including the 2012 national championship.

Still, recruiting wars often turn on events far smaller than a school losing its top assistant.

If Kentucky ultimately loses both Banchero and Huntley-Hatfield to the Vols, as well as Chandler, UT should probably send a thank-you note to the Knicks. Then the Big Orange Nation should start making plans to reach its first-ever Final Four.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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