He is the most hated man in college basketball, which isn’t shocking in a way, knowing that his recruiting mantra and brilliant coaching have built this Kentucky team. Almost every March, John Calipari, the man whose one-and-done model has been a success and made the Wildcats relevant on the basketball landscape, is often castigated and treated like a villain.
Go ahead call him a cheater, a fraud or a sham. Pick on him, but the man does win basketball games at Kentucky, and when he arrived to the school in 2009, he made an immediate impact. Simply put, he’s an ambassador, a teacher and one helluva coach. The best time of the year for Calipari is summer when he visits homes, goes into living rooms and meets prospects and convinces a group of talented freshmen to commit.
That’s the Calipari way. He’s doing it his way. He wins by doing it his way. The Wildcats, arguably the country’s most-talented team, are normally in contention every March. Beating Wichita State last Sunday took the nation by surprise. As his boys got hot at the right time, the Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16 with a thrilling 78-76 victory. Laugh at Calipari as you usually do. Mock him as you usually do. He’s laughing at you because he’s winning and recruiting the best players in the nation. He’s laughing at you because he’s producing NBA stars and replenishing his talent pool annually.
He is the nation’s best recruiter and the best strategist, luring the nation’s best young talent and building a revered program, which couldn’t be more flattering for the most polarizing coach in college basketball. Calipari tells these kids what they want to hear and woo high-school ballplayers to play at Kentucky. He tells these kids that his players are his only real priority as a coach. What continues to fascinate us about Calipari, as much as he satisfies the University of Kentucky and athletic director Mitch Barnhart, is how he churns out wins with one-and-done players. The only thing that matters is winning Final Fours and national titles, and that’s something Calipari does so well. It’s not a surprise he wins with young and inexperienced freshmen, when he once won a national championship with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
That’s not to say Calipari’s formula will work every time, but this is certainly a group of players equivalent to the team he coached two years ago. Last year, Calipari’s one-and-done experiment failed and the Wildcats couldn’t even make the NCAA tournament. Kentucky was talented, and its players were young, and perhaps struggled with maturity, cohesion and consistency. This year, he has eight freshmen on his roster, including six All-American freshmen as his players raised their level of play from earlier in the regular season. This may have been, amazingly so, the best-ever recruiting class in college basketball’s history.
Suddenly, almost remarkably, Calipari’s Wildcats who struggled to find an identity early in the regular season are turning it on in the dog days of March. Kentucky’s five freshmen put together strong late-season surges, and have continued to stay hot in the postseason. The world is ticked off at Calipari. The world loathes him. People in this world need to get lives. When he wins games, he’s the meanest guy on the planet. When he loses games, it goes unnoticed and nobody has anything to say about Coach Cal.
Assuming he cares about his kids, Calipari has been the master of reinvention and molded playground legends into NBA-rookie phenoms. So now he’s an evil, rotten scum who brainwashes the minds of teenagers and one-and-done prodigies. That’s the twist to an assumption perpetuated by fans that hate Kentucky and Calipari. It’s not his fault college basketball has failed to implement a rule to keep athletes in school longer. It’s not his fault college basketball has a broken system and isn’t as fun as it was in the 90s when ballplayers stayed in school until their senior seasons before declaring for the NBA draft.
The problem isn’t with Calipari. The problem is with college basketball, and with athletes who struggle academically and only chase after big money, while aiming to become a top-flight NBA star. There isn’t one day where critics are whining and complaining about Calipari sending one-and-done players immediately to the NBA. What’s more, he’s revived Kentucky basketball to the top of the college game after half a decade in disarray, in part because of the Billy Gillispie era.
So now, here comes Kentucky basketball, with this year’s All-American freshman roster and Coach Cal’s admiration of the one-and-done era. That’s what’s getting it done for the Wildcats. That’s what works for Calipari and only him, and not anybody else in the college game. The level of success the Wildcats are currently having can lead to another Kentucky national title, when we watch the potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Julius Randle and twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison dominate.
It will take another stellar performance, like the one the Wildcats had against the Shockers to beat interstate rivals Louisville in the Elite Eight on Friday night. And so, when Kentucky beat Wichita State last weekend, it suddenly looked like contenders. This is now about a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation to begin the season, and projected to win a national title earlier in the season. This program’s amazing run in recent weeks should tell us something about Calipari and the Wildcats, one of the best team’s in the nation with pure talent.
These Kentucky freshmen might very well be the best freshman class ever, thanks to Calipari’s ability to recruit the nation’s best. But as he does this every year it seems, people say he’s all about his oversized ego and satisfying demanding Kentucky fans. Maybe he is. That’s probably true. Then again, we could be wrong about a man who is genuinely a winner at a place that’s known for its championship pedigree.
Right about now, it’s very possible the Wildcats can win it all.
This team has grown up at the right possible time.