MEMPHIS — John Calipari sat behind a dais Saturday afternoon and outlined the underlying foundation of the Kentucky basketball factory. He perennially recruits and often lands the nation’s best high school players, leads them on a deep NCAA tournament run, waves goodbye as they flee for the NBA and then starts the process again. It works, he said, because the desires of players comes first.
“If not, they’re not trusting you,” Calipari said. “They’re going to look at you and say, ‘This guy is about the program, the program. Look at the banners. This is the program.’ The kids say, ‘Yeah, how about me and my family?’ With us, we talk about family.”
In the locker room of North Carolina, the Wildcats’ opponent in Sunday’s South Region final, senior Nate Britt explained the bedrock reason players choose to play at Carolina, and it happened to diametrically oppose the ethos Calipari espoused.
“If you make a decision to come here, you decide to be a part of something that’s bigger than you,” said Britt, a D.C. native who starred at Gonzaga High. “You know that your role, your position in this program won’t just be about you. You won’t be the center.”
Calipari proudly places individuals above the Kentucky name. UNC Coach Roy Williams, just as proudly, regards the North Carolina banner above all. The coach’s attitudes reflect the complexion of two powerhouse rosters, constructed in wholly different manners, with different but not necessarily unequal value systems.
The Tar Heels have not had a one-and-done player since Brandan Wright in 2007, the first year the NBA banned high schoolers from entering the draft. Kentucky, of course, runs an assembly line for professional prospects. Current stars De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo will likely join the 18 — 18! — players Calipari has ushered into the NBA after one season at Kentucky since he arrived in Lexington in 2009.
The contrast will create a gulf in experience in Sunday’s South Region final. Top-seeded North Carolina (30-7) is the rare college basketball powerhouse built on upperclassmen. It starts two seniors and three juniors. Six Tar Heels appeared in last season’s national title game, including all five starters. No. 2 seed Kentucky (32-5) starts three freshmen and a sophomore, plus senior Derek Willis.
It means the Heels possess more experience and extra physical maturity, with an average age of 20.8 years old compared to Kentucky’s 19.7, the youngest this season among Power 5 schools. The Wildcats pack more raw firepower. Monk and Fox might both be top-five NBA draft picks. UNC’s Justin Jackson, widely viewed as the best college prospect not in the freshman class, is projected as an early-teens lottery pick.
“We go in to recruit whoever we need to recruit,” UNC assistant C.B. McGrath said. “If the situation doesn’t work out for us, it doesn’t work out for us. If we go in their house and they say they want to be one-and-done, they don’t care about school, we usually go elsewhere. We want our kids to go to class. We want them to be invested in the program. Coach runs a basketball program. He always has. If you’re someplace for six to eight months, it’s harder to be invested in that program.
“We don’t go in saying we’re not going to recruit certain kids because they’re one-and-dones. We might go in and say we’re not going to recruit a kid because he doesn’t fit our style, he’s not the type of person we want in our program. We don’t base it on if we think they’re going to be one-and-done.”
Carolina, then, is an accidental anachronism. Williams does not target exclusively players projected to stick around campus. In fact, he would like more one-and-done players. He came hard after Adebayo, who hails from Washington, N.C. Williams wanted Jayson Tatum, who landed at loathed Duke. Over the years, the Tar Heels missed out on Andrew Wiggins and, painfully, Brandon Ingram, who was mentored by Carolina all-timer Jerry Stackhouse. At present, they are wooing Kevin Knox, a 6-foot-8 forward from Florida regarded as a top-10 recruit.
“Yeah, there’s a difference,” Williams said. “He got them, and I didn’t. I recruit the same guys. We’ve got to try to figure out a way to compete with them and go from there.”
The way Kentucky and Carolina position themselves lends to their roster complexions. Calipari has sold himself as the coach best equipped to turn high school seniors into NBA draftees. Annually, Calipari uses his tournament news conferences to tout the success of his players, never failing, unprompted, to defend his presence in the NBA draft’s green room with Kentucky players. On Friday, he told the story — also unprompted — of Devin Booker texting him after scoring 70 points for the Phoenix Suns.
“ ‘Oh, he doesn’t care about winning, he only cares about getting guys to the NBA,’ ” Calipari said Friday, mimicking his critics. “Really? If you pin that on me, I’ll probably say, fine, you can say that. Say that a lot.”
Carolina, conversely, may attract a player for whom the NBA is not a pressing priority. Jackson made the McDonald’s all-American team and could have gone most anywhere he desired. He chose Carolina primarily because it felt like home, a place to establish roots.
“I wasn’t looking for a place that, ‘Okay, they can get me to the league the fastest,’ ” Jackson said.
In recent years, Ed Davis, Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo all faced a decision after their freshman seasons, and all decided to return. Jackson, similarly, could have left after his sophomore season, and instead he is a junior trying to reach his second consecutive Final Four. In a remarkable outlier, given college basketball’s climate, no Tar Heel has transferred since 2011.
“I feel like people just fall in love with Carolina,” Jackson said. “There’s things you could possibly say. For me, coming in as a highly ranked high school player, I never had my mind set on going one-and-done. There’s a lot of players that might do that, and most of them go a different direction [than Carolina], just because of that 10 years of not having a one-and-done.”
Barnes, the seventh selection in the 2012 draft, is the only Tar Heel since Wright to be chosen in the top 10. NBA teams have plucked at least one Kentucky product in the top eight picks every season Calipari has spent in Lexington. And still, Calipari has managed to reload every summer.
“What John does is just phenomenal to me,” Williams said. “To have to change four, five, six, seven guys every year is just phenomenal. What he does is really special there, and I’m not trying to suck up or anything, I really believe that. For me that would be harder because I like that relationship and watching guys grow and do some of those things, but I’d like to have a mix of them.”
For now, Williams has merely a grizzled bunch, motivated to return to the national title game. Those players talk about family, too. “Once you’re part of the family,” Britt said, “you realize this could be the best four years of your life.”
Or, if one becomes part of the Kentucky family, he might realize it could be the best one year of his life. And that’s okay, too.