I watched All Access Kentucky last night, and came away with a greater understanding of why Kentucky is the best program in college basketball. It begins with the face of the program, John Calipari. Coach Cal was featured in twenty of the show’s twenty-two running minutes and with good reason. He is the architect of the program, and sits at the height of his powers. Coach Cal rose to prominence with a final four run at UMass, was humbled by mediocrity at the NBA level, found redemption at Memphis and occupies the throne at Kentucky. At Kentucky, he has been able to use his charisma, vision and experience to meld the realities of contemporary college basketball…AAU brokers…one and dones, with the tradition and glory of Big Blue Nation.
Beginning at Memphis with Derek Rose and Tyreke Evans, Coach Cal embraced the value of recruiting tremendous players that would only play one year at the college level. The talent of these players was so significant that even in a single season they could inspire a deep tournament run, and in the case of Rose, a missed free throw short of a National Championship. Rose and Evans both went immediately to the NBA as top picks, and enjoyed early success. At Kentucky, Coach Cal has traded on this success and expanded the model to include entire recruiting classes that figure to be one and done, and under his guidance this has come to fruition with an absurd 15 Kentucky players getting drafted in the last three years. Top recruits aspire to play in the NBA, and Coach Cal’s record in getting players to the league without peer.
The under-rated component of this model is almost counter-intuitive. This season Kentucky does not have a player on the roster that has started a game at the school. Ostensibly, this is problematic, but upon further scrutiny it can be advantageous. Kentucky deals in high level recruits that travel the AAU circuit and prestiges camps together. Often times these players recruit each other to schools like Kentucky. There is already a familiarity and bond among the Kentucky class before they reach campus. The closeness of the bond is expertly woven by Coach Cal in his “Coach Your Team” mantra. Kentucky’s success breeds haters and critics, Coach Cal bonds his team with an us against them mentality, and as he is bringing a new team every year this prompt stays fresh, and is without the complications of bringing together talented newcomers with less-talented holdovers.
The tradition and glory of Kentucky is central to the programs success. Coach Cal has embraced Big Blue Nation as a life line of his program. Past players and coaches are made to feel welcome in his Wildcat regime. Present players are made to feel the expectations and standards of those that came before them. Coach Cal has incorporated into this dynamic that success is measured not just by wins on the court, but by draftees into the league. In doing so, he has removed the potential dissapointment and sense of betrayal when players leave after only one season. It is not how long you played for the Big Blue, but simply that when you did, you gave your best that measures legacies.
Most telling for me, however, was Coach Cal’s honesty in promising incoming player’s nothing in terms of status or playing time, cautioning that if you are insecure or lacking toughness don’t come, and vowing that their time at Kentucky will be the toughest of their life up to that point. . If you get in the best shape of your life, improve your skill level and play for the team, we all win.