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Kentucky Basketball, John Calipari and the NBA

I’ve been asked by a few different people why I have yet to make any comment on the John Calipari quote about five Wildcats being picked in the first round in the NBA making for the biggest day in Kentucky Basketball history. Some are up in arms, posting message board topics like “Somebody needs to have a sit down with Cal”.

I, for one, find the comment completely ridiculous. John Calipari is certainly prone to hyperbole, and I think this is yet another case. If John Calipari stays at UK for five years, I’m betting there will be about three to six “biggest days in program history.” As for the people who are laying into Calipari for having the audacity to place Draft night ahead of national titles one through seven, I say that’s equally ridiculous. John Calipari is all about sound bytes and this is just another example.

While the whole firestorm is a bit frustrating/stupid, the whole scenario is reflective of an interesting dichotomy developing within Kentucky Basketball in terms of attitude toward the NBA.

On one hand, you have John Calipari. Kentucky has a coach who recruits like no one in the business. The level of success that Cal has had in his first year plus on the job is really unprecedented in recent NCAA history. The guys is bringing in incomparable talent at an an unbelievable rate and there’s really one big reason why: the NBA.

Over the past fifteen years, top college coaches have grown to despise the NBA, specifically early entry into the league. Coaches make a living by holding onto players that one extra year for a run at the title. On the other hand, programs are set back years by a surprising early departure or two.

John Calipari is really in the process of doing something that the sport hasn’t seen: making a living on players heading the NBA Draft in short order. Players are incredibly attracted by the prospect of making it to the NBA as quickly as possible and that fact serves as a huge selling point for UK.

There are tons of UK haters that would much rather point to Nike or Worldwide Wes to explain away John Calipari’s success, but it’s really the NBA and Cal’s acceptance and excitedness to lose players early that paves the way for back to back to back top recruiting classes. It’s also Calipari’s attitude toward the NBA that makes Uncle Wes so loyal to him. Wes has seen young, naive, talented players be capitalized on by the college establishment for too long, and the fact that Cal encourages his players to make the leap when it’s right for them makes Cal very appealing to him.

Think back to Jodie Meeks’ and Patrick Patterson’s NBA decisions last year. John Calipari completely kept his distance when any attempt to sway Meeks or Patterson could have made a big difference in keeping them. Most coaches recruit their players to stay one more year. John Calipari wouldn’t dare be caught doing that with a player who was ready for the NBA. If Cal had been perceived as trying to keep either at UK, he would have done harm to his reputation as an NBA guy if he did otherwise.

On the other hand, you have a fan base that has worshiped basketball dating back the days of freshman playing JV. Yeah, we follow former players when they make it to the big stage, but we keep a safe distance. That’s not happening anymore. The NBA is going to be a big part of our existence as UK fans, and there isn’t a thing we can do about it.

I do worry a bit about how this conflict is going to play out. I have no concerns about it if Cal racks up the Final Fours and national titles quickly. If Cal goes two or three years with top recruiting classes but only Sweet 16’s and Elite Eight’s, I fear that his style will begin to frustrate ‘Cats fans.

Ironically, it was Tubby Smith’s inability or unwillingness to get top talent that disenchanted UK fans. It could be the exact opposite that does it for Calipari.

Frankly though, I don’t see it happening. The level of talent that will continue to flow into Lexington cannot be matched, and eventually that talent will (with maybe a vet or two) get the job done, and I think it will be sooner rather than later.


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