“I felt that was the best fit and the best opportunity for me, being able to play for that great program and showcase my winning drive on that stage,” Sarr told ESPN, in reference to playing for John Calipari at Kentucky. “Coach Cal made me understand that I was needed over there.”
After coach Danny Manning was fired, Sarr informed Wake Forest that he wanted to enter the transfer portal, which he did shortly after the Demon Deacons hired East Tennessee State’s Steve Forbes as their new coach last week.
Sarr told ESPN that he heard from more than a dozen schools, including Duke, Baylor, Florida State and Gonzaga. He also met with Forbes and the new Wake Forest coaching staff over the weekend.
— Olivier Sarr (@sarr_olivier) May 6, 2020
The decision ultimately came down to transferring to Kentucky or returning to Wake Forest.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is for me,” said Sarr, a 7-footer from France. “I hope they understand that I’m not transferring because I don’t like the school, the team, the new coach. Just that I felt like this was the best opportunity and I had to take it.
“It’s going to be tough, talking to my coaches and teammates, fans, professors, managers. It’s a tough decision. I don’t know how to explain it. I loved Wake. They welcomed me with open arms, when I was a skinny freshman who barely spoke English. I will always be a Deacon. I hope they always remember me as a Deacon.”
Forbes spoke about the new staff’s recruitment of Sarr during a radio interview with WSJS on Tuesday afternoon.
“I think the most important thing is, why would you go to Wake for three years, put all that time in to get this prestigious degree, and end up getting your degree at a place like Kentucky?” Forbes said.
Sarr became the top available transfer — and arguably the top transfer all spring — when he decided to leave Wake Forest. He earned third-team All-ACC honors last season after averaging 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds for the Demon Deacons. He tallied 11 double-doubles, was adept at drawing fouls and was one of the best defensive rebounders in the conference.
Kentucky was immediately considered a potential destination, as the Wildcats had pursued big men all spring and had a lack of options inside. Calipari had a Zoom meeting with Sarr’s family, including his 15-year-old brother, Alexandre, who plays for Real Madrid’s youth team and is considered one of the top European prospects in his age group.
“Cal told me that, as always, he has a young team,” Sarr said. “They are really talented. Without me, they are the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. But they don’t have the experience that I have from playing in the ACC. He wants me to be a leader, to show them and tell them how college basketball is. I will be a great example for them. It was clear from the talks that they needed me. They needed experience.”
Kentucky lost six players early to the NBA draft this spring, and another player transferred to UCLA. Only one player who saw significant minutes last season — forward Keion Brooks (4.5 PPG) — is returning. Calipari does bring in the top-ranked 2020 recruiting class, led by five-star perimeter players B.J. Boston, Terrence Clarke and Devin Askew.
There is a clear starting spot available for Sarr, and Kentucky’s track record for developing big men for the NBA was appealing.
“That’s one of the reasons I chose Kentucky,” Sarr said. “They have the resources and they do a great job of getting big men ready for the NBA. But it’s not about what I say; it’s about what I do on the court. I need to put the work in and show that I am one of these guys. They showed they can do it in the past at a high rate. Now it’s my turn to do my job and become one of those well-known names.”
Calipari said he was “excited” at the opportunity to coach Olivier.
“Olivier is a great kid and a terrific player on the rise who knows he’s going to have to come in and lead,” Calipari said. “He gives us a veteran, established player who has not only played on a big stage and played well, he wants this next challenge.
“When we first talked to Olivier, my first thought wasn’t on what he does for this team, it was why he wanted to be here. I coached Danny and know his relationship with his players, so when Danny talked about what a great kid he is, we said, ‘Let’s do this.'”
Sarr has too many credits remaining to graduate before transferring, but he’s hoping to receive a waiver to play immediately. Although the NCAA’s one-time transfer waiver looks unlikely to go into effect next season, Manning’s late departure and Sarr acquiescing to Wake Forest’s requests to delay his transfer could help him get one anyway. Otherwise, he would have to sit out per NCAA transfer regulations.
Sarr told ESPN last week that he had no interest in sitting out before playing his final season.
“I could go pro, play one year in the EuroLeague, somewhere to get ready for the NBA,” he said. “There’s no way I sit out.”