That rule, which prohibits players from entering the NBA draft until they are one year removed from high school, means top players often view college as a brief pit stop before playing professionally. Calipari has drawn many of these elite players here in recent years, knowing they likely wouldn’t be staying long.
Under Calipari, Kentucky has had as much raw talent as any team in the country — and a virtually brand-new lineup each fall. Longtime analyst Dick Vitale likens Kentucky basketball to a McDonald’s drive-through window where you grab your food and continue down the road.
“Down at Kentucky, you come through, you roll out in one year, you play in the NBA,” Vitale said.
“Simply put, he’s following the rules. The rules say a player comes in one year, he’s allowed to leave. You may not like the rule — I don’t like the rule — but he is following the rules.”
The most remarkable part might not be that Calipari gets the best players to Kentucky, gets them to the Final Four or gets them into the NBA. It’s that he gets them to play together. Even with Calipari’s long line of detractors, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says what the Kentucky coach has done is “one of the great accomplishments in the history of basketball.”
Calipari makes no apologies. He took Massachusetts and Memphis to the Final Four — appearances the NCAA has since ordered vacated — before winning his first national title last spring. In the past three seasons, he has sent 15 underclassmen to the NBA. Six of those were drafted last spring, including the top two picks, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
That means when Kentucky opens its season Friday night, the Wildcats’ starting lineup will feature three freshmen and two sophomores. Kentucky is the only school in the country that doesn’t return a single player who has started at least one college game. While other coaches might talk about rebuilding, Calipari simply reloads. Kentucky starts the year ranked No. 3 in the country.
“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for what he gets out of them,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “. . . The problem is, everybody’s just so jealous of him.”
‘It’s not my rule’
Calipari, 53, is lauded as a great recruiter and motivator — smooth-talking and sharp-dressing, cut from the Pat Riley mold. But much of the nation, as Calipari puts it, sees only a salesman who gets blue-chippers to campus and then “just rolls out the balls.”
“I go okay, I don’t know how we’re winning. Must be a magician. . . . I must be — what’s that guy in Vegas? The magician. That’s me. I’m David Copperfield. Ta-da!”