LEXINGTON, Ky. —The most polarizing figure in college basketball was up early Tuesday morning, attending Mass before visiting a local school to cast a vote in the presidential election. Then over a large coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts downtown, John Calipari explained why he dislikes a system he’s utilized better than any other coach in the country.
“Look, would I like to have these teams for three or fours years? What, am I stupid? Yes,” he said. “I don’t like the one-and-done rule.”
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.”
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!”
In fact, Calipari’s biggest challenge awaits him when his recruits arrive. Coaching freshmen is not like coaching upperclassmen. It’s a process that begins long before the season starts. The first step is carefully dismantling a culture of entitlement.
“If I begged them to come, could I coach them the way I do?” Calipari said. “How could I have a relationship with them to coach them like I do?”
Calipari stresses defense and unselfish play. Those top two picks of the draft last year? They were Nos. 4 and 5 in shots on their own team. Davis was not only the Naismith College Player of the Year, but he was the NABC defensive player of the year, as well.
“Most times, when coaches recruit you, they tell you how much you’re going to have the ball or how they are going to change the offense for you,” said John Wall, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 NBA draft who played one season at Kentucky. “He’s not doing none of that at all. He’s going to say he’s pushing you to be the best.”
Calipari says he tells each player to plan on being at Kentucky at least two years. If they plan on one, they won’t focus enough on the task at hand. But he finds no fault in a talented 18-year old hoping to play professionally as soon as possible. The problem, he says, lies with the system.
“I’m doing what I can to get it changed,” he said. “Everyone thinks it’s my rule. It’s not my rule.”
The one-and-done rule is the NBA’s, so Calipari says he has met four or five times with Billy Hunter, even flying the top boss of the NBA Players Association into Lexington to talk with his players. Calipari says concessions need to be made on all sides. He would like to see incentives for student-athletes to stay in school. Health insurance, perhaps, for the elite players. Maybe shorter NBA rookie contracts for those who stay in school longer.
At any rate, he tells recruits once they’re on campus, their sole focus needs to be Kentucky basketball.
“During the season, you can see it’s about our team. The minute the year is over, it becomes about each individual player,” Calipari said. “You tell them to meet with their family. I don’t encourage or discourage. I give information.”
To make them NBA prospects after one season, Calipari has to get the most out of them in a relatively short amount of time. Wildcats coaches have to teach drills from scratch each year, and Calipari begins the season with a truncated playbook.
“How about this: We haven’t even worked on zone yet,” he said this week. “We have not done any zone stuff yet.”
His point: The Wildcats will look very different in March then they do in November. In Kentucky’s exhibition game against Transylvania year ago, for example, Davis scored just six points and Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t start. Six months later, they won an NCAA championship.
But to get to that point, Calipari says he can’t coddle them. Last week the coach made a point to tell the local media about the 21 / 2-hour practices and how hard he’s having to push his players. For their part, the players don’t seem to mind.
“He told us it was going to be that way,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot freshman.
“He keeps it real,” said Nerlens Noel, another freshman for the Wildcats. “That’s how he’s been since he was recruiting us.”
Calipari doesn’t mention names, but he says one player has been struggling in practice: “I’ve been trying to get him to have the picture of himself that I have of him and it’s been tough. He has to come up to me after every practice and I hug him. . . . You know why? He needs it.”
Another player should be a straight-A student, according to Calipari, but he doesn’t enjoy school; doesn’t like reading.
“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, you and I are in a book club together. We’re going to read some books together,’ ” the coach said. The two just finished Jon Gordon’s “The Energy Bus,” and have moved on to “The Seed” by the same author.
The key, the coach says, is to get the most out of each player while he’s at Kentucky. The truth is, many won’t be around very long. According to Draft Express, four Wildcats are projected to be selected in the first round of next spring’s NBA draft. That likely means a year from now, Calipari will be again starting from scratch, relying on a successful blueprint that is his and his alone.
“We’ve got a younger game now,” Bilas said. “The game has changed in the last several years. It’s almost like we as a basketball community refuse to admit. I don’t think John’s doing anything wrong. I don’t think it’s good or bad for the game. It is the game.”
Michael Lee contributed to this report from Washington.