UK basketball is on a run of in-state recruiting success. Will Malachi Moreno be next?

For the first time in a surprisingly long time, Kentucky basketball is back to recruiting the best-of-the-best from the commonwealth.

Of course, the one-and-done, elite recruiting success enjoyed by former head coach John Calipari had a lot to do with UK frequently going outside the state for players.

But even toward the end of Calipari’s 15-season tenure with the Wildcats, UK was getting back to bringing in the best prospects that Kentucky high school basketball had to offer.

The Wildcats have already brought in consecutive winners of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball award for the first time since 2008 and 2009, when Darius Miller (Mason County) and Jon Hood (Madisonville) both became Wildcats: first came Reed Sheppard (North Laurel) in 2023, and 2024 will bring Travis Perry (Lyon County), the all-time leading scorer in Kentucky high school boys basketball history, to Lexington.

But as Sheppard prepares to become a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft and Perry starts his college career in earnest, there’s another in-state high school star who holds plenty of recruiting interest from the Wildcats.

Class of 2025 center Malachi Moreno is next up as far as Kentucky’s young basketball talent is concerned.

The 7-foot-1, 230-pound Moreno is a full-fledged star at Georgetown’s Great Crossing High School. Moreno is ranked as a four-star recruit and the No. 37 overall player in the country in the 2025 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite.

That recruiting service also has Moreno as the top Kentucky-based prospect in the 2025 class, a group that also features three-star power forward EJ Walker, a South Carolina commit from Erlanger’s Lloyd Memorial High School.

“I’m just working on showing … My versatility, just being able to switch 1 through 5 and being able to handle the ball and make plays with the ball in my hands,” Moreno said at the NBPA Top 100 Camp taking place near Orlando this week.

On an even larger scale, Moreno is part of a 2025 recruiting class that features several other talented prospects who began their high school careers in Kentucky — specifically prolific combo guards Jasper Johnson and Kaden Magwood.

While Johnson and Magwood left the state to play at prep schools, Moreno stayed.

Moreno is the only Kentucky-based high school player at the NBPA Top 100 Camp, which features a collection of some of the best basketball talent in the country.

Now, he’s among the top contenders for the title of Kentucky Mr. Basketball in 2025, as well as the focus of a significant in-state recruiting effort by Mark Pope and UK.

Pope was joined by all three of Kentucky’s assistant coaches who are permitted to go out recruiting — associate head coach Alvin Brooks III and assistant coaches Cody Fueger and Jason Hart — on Tuesday at the NBPA Camp to watch prospects like Moreno in action.

Great Crossing’s Malachi Moreno (24) averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds per game last season for the Warhawks leading up to the Sweet 16 state tournament. Great Crossing made its first appearance in the Sweet 16 last season.
Great Crossing’s Malachi Moreno (24) averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds per game last season for the Warhawks leading up to the Sweet 16 state tournament. Great Crossing made its first appearance in the Sweet 16 last season.

Malachi Moreno is top-ranked recruit from Kentucky in 2025 class

Moreno — whose older brother, Michael, just finished a distinguished five-year playing career at Eastern Kentucky and is that school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made — became a superstar as a high school junior.

Malachi Moreno was an integral part of a Great Crossing team that reached the Sweet 16 state tournament for the first time in the 5-year-old school’s history. Moreno averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds per game entering the Sweet 16, then added performances of 24 points and 19 rebounds (in an opening win against Spencer County) and 16 points and 15 rebounds (in a quarterfinal win against Magoffin County).

When a Travis Perry-led Lyon County team (the eventual state champions) knocked off Great Crossing in the Sweet 16 semifinals, it was the first time all season that Great Crossing lost to a Kentucky school. Moreno still posted another double-double (12 points and 14 rebounds) in the defeat.

Moreno’s size and strength remains at the forefront of his basketball potential, but he’s also showing off new features to his game.

“I think my biggest jump (as a player) has been my physicality and how I play the game,” Moreno said. “I’m not just playing the 5 anymore: I space out the floor a lot. Just getting my teammates involved is (another) way that I’ve gotten better.”

Fresh off an appearance at this year’s Adidas EuroCamp in Italy, Moreno is now impressing at the NBPA Top 100 Camp.

In front of personnel from all 30 NBA franchises and college coaches and recruiters, Moreno has positioned himself among the event’s per-game leaders in points (17.5), rebounds (8.2) and blocks (1.2) through six contests.

He cited Rudy Gobert (a four-time NBA defensive player of the year) and Anthony Davis (a nine-time NBA All-Star) among the current players he tries to emulate.

Moreno’s ability to effectively use his large frame is a major reason why his college recruitment features a host of high-major schools.

Arkansas, Duke, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio State were all mentioned by Moreno when he was asked which schools are contacting him the most.

Moreno added that he talks to new Louisville head coach Pat Kelsey every week.

“It’s a good talk,” Moreno said, noting that Kelsey also recruited his brother, Michael, when Kelsey was the head coach at Winthrop. “… I’ll probably get down (to Louisville) once I get back home.”

While Moreno is yet to have a formal, official visit with Kentucky, he’s well versed with the program.

This includes attending last October’s Big Blue Madness event, January’s home win over Mississippi State and February’s home win over Alabama.

And to answer the major question at hand: No, Kentucky’s offseason coaching change from Calipari to Pope hasn’t harmed UK’s standing with Moreno.

“He’s all about winning a championship,” Moreno said of his early impressions of Pope, who did just that as a Kentucky player in 1996.

Rising senior Malachi Moreno (24) helped lead Great Crossing to the Sweet 16 state tournament semifinals last season.
Rising senior Malachi Moreno (24) helped lead Great Crossing to the Sweet 16 state tournament semifinals last season.

Moreno, Great Crossing will face high expectations in 2024-25 season

With Great Crossing being the reigning 11th Region champions, and with Moreno ranked as a top-five center in the 2025 recruiting class, there will be plenty of expectations for both the Warhawks and their star player next season.

“It’s nice to know that people hold us to high standards. It gives us a lot to live up to,” Moreno said. “I think with the expectations we have, and what we can do, it will definitely help us in the long run. Once we get back to where we were last year, we’re not going to be afraid of the challenge and we’re going to be ready for anything that comes our way.”

This mirrors some of the advice Moreno has received from Michael, his older brother who had a legendary high school career at Scott County that included reaching the Sweet 16 state championship games in 2018 and 2019.

“Just to not be afraid of the challenge and to ask questions,” Moreno said of his brother’s advice. “You can always learn something new every day.”

Individually, how does Moreno hope to improve as a high school senior?

“Just being able to handle the ball and shoot the 3, that’s what I’ve been working on the most,” Moreno said. “Just working on my form and just my ball handling, so I can really space out the floor when I get to the next level.”

“I hope to be a stretch 5 in college,” added Moreno, name-dropping versatile NBA big men such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. “Just being able to showcase that and being able to get defensive rebounds, and being able to bring (the ball) up the floor and push the fast break.”

And if things fall into place in just the right way, there could also be a distinct bit of Kentucky basketball history on the line.

The UK men’s basketball program hasn’t brought in the Kentucky Mr. Basketball award winner in three consecutive years since the 1980s, when Rex Chapman (1986, Apollo), John Pelphrey (1987, Paintsville) and Richie Farmer (1988, Clay County) all chose to be Wildcats.

Early indications from Pope’s short time as the Kentucky basketball coach show a desire to recruit the state’s high school players to a more significant extent than Calipari, although Pope is also expected to bring in less freshmen each year than Coach Cal.

In addition to Perry, Pope’s first UK basketball roster will feature Harlan County alum Trent Noah, the commonwealth’s second-highest ranked recruit in the 2024 class and a former South Carolina signee.

Regardless of this, Moreno is being recruited to UK because of his own skill and talent.

That Kentucky remains in the thick of his recruitment is as strong a testament to this as anything else.

“He’s come into this new job with his head high, ready to work and he makes sure all his players understand the assignment,” Moreno said about Pope, the man who finds himself leading UK’s pursuit of the state’s next basketball star.

“He’s ready to work and he’s ready to get this next banner.”

Great Crossing’s Malachi Moreno is ranked as a four-star center and the top Kentucky-based college basketball prospect in the 2025 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite.
Great Crossing’s Malachi Moreno is ranked as a four-star center and the top Kentucky-based college basketball prospect in the 2025 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite.

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