Kentucky is in the Final Four, and I assume that makes no one happy unless their grass is blue. I certainly didn’t want the Wildcats and their drive-by college students excelling in the NCAA Tournament.
But with that said, there’s no way you can blame John Calipari or his players for milking the system. They did not invent the one-and-done culture. They did not advocate for it. Fact is, if you let Kentucky’s players vote, they would have, maybe to a man, opted to go straight to the NBA out of high school.
So cheer against Kentucky if you wish, but don’t knock the Wildcats as some kind of rule-breakers or revolutionaries. All Calipari has done is look at the landscape designed by others and figure out how to win.
During a Final Four teleconference Monday, Calipari was asked about his secret in recruiting, how he’s able to land elite players. He took exception to the question and then offered some insight on the current Kentucky model.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Calipari said. “When I was at UMass, we had one McDonald’s All‑American, Donte Bright. When I was at Memphis, we may have had three over my years there. We weren’t getting top‑50 players at UMass. We were winning, we were a terrific team. I had to coach guys four years. I was ecstatic. At Memphis, I was coaching them three to four years. We were becoming a good team.
“Now I’m at Kentucky. There’s a combination of the parents understanding Kentucky, what it is, and the young people only know three years. The kids we recruit, all of us, they don’t know five years ago. They were 12 and 11, 10. They know the last three years.
“When John Wall and (Eric) Bledsoe and (DeMarcus) Cousins and (Patrick) Patterson went in that draft, (Daniel) Orton, five first‑rounders, it changed the whole direction,” Calipari said of the 2010 NBA Draft.
“The paradigm changed. It wasn’t like we planned it. I never thought Eric Bledsoe was one‑and‑done. No one thought that. He didn’t play the McDonald’s game. What about Josh Harrellson? What about DeAndre Liggins making it? That’s all crazy talk.
“What’s happened is these kids understand they have to come together and we’re honest with them. This is the hardest place to come and play basketball. If you think this is going to be easy, don’t come here.
“The second piece of it is, if you want to be the only guy that can play, don’t come here. If you want to take all the shots, go somewhere else. If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys. If you want to go there, go.
“That’s not how it is here. Every game is the Super Bowl. You’re scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you’re going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me. What we’re doing has never been done. You can’t do this. So you’re getting that hit. If you can’t deal with all that, don’t come here.
“That’s a heck of a sale, isn’t it?”
But it works. Through that remarkable 2010 draft, UK can sell the fact that it puts young players into the NBA. And the players flock to Lexington.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
That 2010 team? The Wildcats lost to West Virginia in the regional final, then a few months later, Wall went overall No. 1 in the draft, Cousins went fifth, Patterson 14th, Bledsoe 18th and Orton 29th.
In 2011, Kentucky made the Final Four, even though freshman Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible for the entire season. Kanter and Brandon Knight were first-round draft picks.
In 2012, Kentucky won the NCAA title, with superstar Anthony Davis, the overall No. 1 pick. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went second, Terrence Jones 18th and Marquis Teague 29th. Jones was a sophomore; the rest were freshmen.
In 2013, Kentucky didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament, but UK’s Nerlens Noel went sixth and Archie Goodwin 29th.
Now in 2014, UK is in the Final Four, and five more Wildcats could go in the first round – Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison, James Young and Andrew Harrison. All but Cauley-Stein are freshmen.
The truth about Calipari is, he’s a heck of a coach. To get a bunch of freshmen to play well together, even if they are supremely talented, is not easy.
“I wish we could have skipped steps in the process,” Calipari said. “Probably was trying to do that, which is why I did such a poor job early with this team. I was probably trying to skip steps. But in the end we got the plane down barely. We almost ran out of runway. This team was built up to be torn down. I always wonder if it’s the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team.
“But they withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered. They kept believing. They were their brother’s keeper. They believed in the leadership. They believed in the staff. They believed in the system and the process. It never went away. I never stopped believing in this team or the players on it, and I mean each individual player.
“So that in itself is a great story of how in the world did you guys overcome that? Well, it made us stronger. It made us tougher. It made us harder.”
You don’t have to like Kentucky. You don’t have to cheer for Kentucky. But Kentucky has great basketball tradition, it has a coach that saw what the rules are and used them to his benefit.