Isaiah Austin could have gone to Kentucky.
He could have become part of the program with the most wins of all-time and play his home games at historic Rupp Arena.
But Austin never seriously considered it coming out of Arlington Grace Prep in 2012 as one of the most sought-after recruits in the country.
He made up his mind early in the recruiting process that staying in-state and playing for Baylor and coach Scott Drew would be his choice over the Wildcats and coach John Calipari, who were his runner-ups.
“Coming out of high school, everyone wants to go with the hype and Kentucky was the hype out of high school,” Austin said. “But I made the best decision for me — coming here to Baylor playing under coach Drew, who is just as great of a coach as coach Calipari is … we have just as great of faculty and staff and everybody … Kentucky is not better than us in any way, shape or form.
“We’re two competitive programs that have been growing over the years and that’s what we’re both going to continue to do.”
Austin and the 20th-ranked Bears (7-1) have a chance to make an early-season statement Friday night when they face the third-ranked Wildcats (7-1) at AT&T Stadium. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. following a Baylor-Kentucky women’s game at 6:30 p.m.
Austin expects to have about 100 family and friends on hand and would like to have a similar ending to Baylor’s 64-55 victory over Kentucky last year at Rupp Arena. Austin had 11 points and five rebounds in that game, although he admits that he hasn’t played at his peak level yet.
Austin underwent shoulder surgery last May and has not fully recovered from it. His minutes, rebounds and points are all down from last season.
“Obviously I’m not playing as well as I was last year, but we’re winning,” Austin said. “We’re winning more than we were last year, so I’m not really tripping about it. My teammates got my back.”
Last year’s game shouldn’t have much significance, either, in today’s one-and-done era. The Wildcats have plenty of new faces with one of the best freshman classes in recent memory, led by Plano Prestonwood product Julius Randle.
At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, Randle has averaged a double-double (18.1 points per game and 12.6 rebounds per game) through Kentucky’s first eight games.
The backcourt is just as impressive with lengthy guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison — both from Fort Bend Travis — and sharpshooter James Young.
For the Bears to win, they will have to limit turnovers. They turned the ball over 20 times in a 74-67 loss to Syracuse last week in Hawaii and have more turnovers than assists in two of their past three games.
“You can’t turn the ball over and give them easy baskets,” Drew said. “Kentucky is tremendous in transition.”
Drew compared this year’s Kentucky team to its team that won the national championship in 2012,which defeated Baylor in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
“This team definitely has all the potential that team did,” Drew said. “If you’ve just seen from the first game to now, defensively they’ve gotten a lot better. With young teams, you just improve so rapidly in those first couple of months. There’s no doubt coach Cal has them headed in the right direction.”
It should be an intriguing matchup of teams with visions of returning to AT&T Stadium in April for the Final Four. But this shouldn’t be considered a “preview” event as the venue has a seating capacity for 13,000 compared with the 80,000 or so expected for the Final Four.
Friday’s court will be set up in what is usually the Cowboys’ bench area with seats set up on the other three sides of the floor. More than 10,000 tickets had been sold as of Wednesday evening with a base capacity of a little more than 13,000. Capacity can be expanded to other areas if demand dictates a larger crowd.
Regardless, both teams know what a win of this caliber could mean for their résumés come Selection Sunday.
As Austin said, “Gotta get that ‘W.’”