It shouldn’t have to be stated, but there is actually no such thing as an inheritance in this game. If you needed illumination on that point, consider how much of Coach John Calipari’s decade at Kentucky has been spent nurse-maiding freshmen, including four of his starters and seven of 12 on his roster.
Whatever the flaws of the one-and-done system that creates such turnover, one thing it does is reward good teachers and expose poor ones. You don’t make seven Elite Eight appearances in 10 years, as Calipari has, purely on recruiting. The team that will meet Auburn on Sunday seeking a place in the Final Four is less about five-star talent than about a tutor who turned his freshmen into graduate students in the space of a semester, who has the flexibility and mastery to adapt to their abilities strategically in a short period of time.
“What it does when you’re changing teams like this, it keeps you curious,” Calipari said earlier this week. “You have to be. You have to look and say, ‘How do we play with this team? What drills do we use? Do we invent new drills?’ We’re doing things with this team that we’ve never done with any other team because we’ve had to. It does keep you younger. There’s no lesson plan year to year. It’s all new. . . . You better adapt to your team and you better figure it out defensively, and how do you play offensively? Like, no one knows, because I don’t know until we start and get through a season.”
Certainly, Calipari starts ahead of most coaches in the country by virtue of the talent Kentucky signs, such as 6-foot-7 sophomore power forward P.J. Washington. As Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson said of Washington, “You can’t teach that, you can only recruit it.” Everything about Kentucky “reeks of top notch,” as Houston’s Armoni Brooks put it.
Still, five-star recruits don’t completely explain this team, and they especially don’t explain how it survived in the tournament with Washington first sidelined and then limited with a sprained foot. Or how four freshmen iced a veteran Houston team in the clutch in the region semifinals Friday despite trailing by three with less than a minute to go.
This particular Kentucky squad, more than most, has shown the interior struts and building blocks of a Calipari construction project, and it is worth studying closely for that. Just consider the distance the Wildcats traveled, improvement-wise, from that 118-84 whipping they took from Duke in November.
For experience, and mature company, Calipari has had only 6-8 fifth-year senior transfer Reid Travis, and even he is “another kind of one-and-done,” as Travis says. Travis came from Stanford seeking to get himself NBA-ready. All Calipari did with him was get him to drop more than 20 pounds and make him become a mobile threat as well as a monster rebounder who hauled down 11 against Houston. When Calipari checked on Travis’s body fat recently, it was 4 percent. The only way for him to lose more weight would have been to “give up a kidney,” Calipari joked.
“The biggest thing I take away is just the little nuances that he’s taught me, that I can affect the game without scoring,” Travis said. Calipari’s nuts-and-bolts tutoring in rebounding, shot-blocking and defending multiple positions, he said, expanded him into more of an all-court factor. “When I got here it was a big emphasis to him that it’s not always about trying to throw up the biggest numbers, but you can affect the game in so many ways. That starts with changing your body, changing the way you move.”
Scan Kentucky’s roster, and you find player after player whose game has undergone similar transformation under Calipari.
Ashton Hagans: The point guard went just 5 for 27 from three-point range in his first 25 collegiate games. He was the guy everyone laid off. Calipari insisted he could become a shooter but only if he put the time in. He would stick by a player who went 1 for 10, the coach said, only if he knew he had been in the gym. Suddenly, Hagans began hitting 50 percent or better in six of his past eight games coming into the NCAA tournament. “You been in the gym?” Calipari asked him. The whole team started laughing. Hagans had been shooting in the practice gym until 10:30 at night.
Tyler Herro: In four of his first six college games he didn’t make it to the free throw line even once. He was a pure jump shooter who didn’t force the action, even though he makes 95 percent of his foul shots. By the time the SEC tournament was over, he had made 84 trips to the line.
None of these guys came to Kentucky ready-made. And none of them were stroked or falsely promised by Calipari. Neither was Devin Booker, the first-round NBA draft pick in 2015, who came off the bench under Calipari as an undergrad. Or Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 choice in ’15, who averaged just 21 minutes of playing time at Kentucky. Or Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in 2012, whom Calipari convinced to so sublimate himself that he took fewer shots than three teammates on their championship team that season. These are all players who Calipari blended into a collective.
Survey Kentucky’s history under Calipari, in fact, and what stands out is not his ability to attract blue-chip freshmen, as much as his willingness to speak point-blank truths to them. There is a candor to him, a kind of honesty about what it takes, that is their real strength.
“As much as you have to do in a short period of time, you don’t have a lot of time for B.S.,” Calipari says. “You just don’t.”