Kentucky’s new coaches communicate the ‘extreme value’ of being part of UK basketball

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An evolving college basketball landscape and a new set of challenges await Orlando Antigua as he prepares for his second stint at Kentucky.

The sport looks quite a bit different now than it did 12 years ago, when Antigua arrived in Lexington for the first time as part of a coaching staff led by John Calipari that was supposed to change the trajectory of a floundering program. They did that, to say the least.

One of the key ingredients to that success — three Final Fours and a national title in five seasons — was Kentucky’s ability to land the very best recruits in the country. Antigua was part of six recruiting cycles with the Cats. In those six cycles, UK signed nine recruits that were ranked in the top five nationally.

Antigua left the program in 2014 to take over as head coach at South Florida. In the seven recruiting cycles since then, UK has signed just two top-five national prospects: Skal Labissiere and Brandon Boston. The Cats haven’t been back to the Final Four since 2015.

Now, Antigua arrives yet again with the oversized expectations of helping return Kentucky to its glory days. This time, Ronald “Chin” Coleman will be along for the ride. Both men spent the past four seasons as assistant coaches at Illinois, helping to restore that program’s status as a top contender in college basketball.

Obviously, Antigua’s past success in Lexington was a major topic of discussion Saturday, when both coaches met with local reporters for the first time since their hires were officially announced. Antigua credited the “synergy” those early UK coaching staffs enjoyed as a major reason for their success.

He and Coleman join a staff that already features longtime head coach Bruiser Flint in an associate’s role, up-and-coming assistant Jai Lucas, and longtime Calipari confidante John Robic as a special assistant. And, of course, Calipari himself, the Hall of Fame coach who promised a few weeks ago — following a disastrous 9-16 campaign — that change was coming.

Antigua and Coleman are the most visible part of that change yet, and they know landing top recruits will be one of their top priorities moving forward.

There were no specific promises made Saturday on that front. There was an acknowledgment that times have changed, but also a promise that the new guys are up for the challenge.

“I was a part of a really, really good team,” Antigua said of his early recruiting success at UK. “I didn’t get anybody. We were able to go and recruit and get (guys). I was just happy to be a spoke in that wheel, and that same kind of wheel that we have now is how we’re going to approach our recruiting. Will we get some? I hope so. Will we miss on some? Probably.”

Kentucky’s recruiting message

The G League and other professional routes are arguably the biggest new threat to Kentucky’s recruiting prowess. Those avenues have already become the chosen path for several five-star prospects over the past few years. More are likely to head that direction in the near future.

A top remaining class of 2021 target, Jaden Hardy, is expected to pick the G League when he reveals his recruiting decision May 15. It’s almost certainly too late to change his mind, but there are several top players in the 2022 class (and beyond) who will have UK and the pros on their radar.

How do you win over such recruits?

“It’s different,” Antigua said. “The kids that the G League and the pro leagues are going to target are very talented. But you can’t use a brush to paint all of them. Each individual family has different circumstances that they have to weigh and what experience they’re trying to go through to try to get to their dreams. Some families are going to want the educational piece of this. Some are going to want the value of sacrificing and playing on the team and playing and competing with other really, really good players. And then getting to an NCAA Tournament, making a Final Four run, and, potentially, a national championship. There is extreme value in that.

“There is also an unbelievable experience that happens when you go through that, that you can’t put a price on. And the kids that have been here and have gone through that — those experiences are going to outweigh anything else that they’ve ever done in their lives, because it’s special. It’s such a rewarding experience. They’re loved in the state. They’re loved throughout history.”

Antigua has the well-earned reputation in college basketball circles as a master recruiter who succeeds in that area because of his natural ability as a communicator and genuine approach as a relationship-builder.

In that regard, he seemingly found something of a kindred spirit in Coleman. The two coaches had known each other for a decade or so even before they first teamed up at Illinois.

Prior to his 2011 transition to college basketball, Coleman — a standout point guard at Lamar University in his own college days — was the head coach of one of the top AAU programs in the country and a high school coach in Chicago. He admired Calipari’s approach even then, once spending a week in Memphis — while Antigua was on staff there — to get a better feel for Calipari’s process. Now, he’ll be a major part of that dynamic.

“You’re going to get a well-rounded individual,” Coleman said Saturday morning. “Someone who comes to the gym every day with the sort of energy that, no matter what time it is — if it’s 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning — Chin is going to have that same energy. I don’t drink coffee. At all. My energy is my energy. That’s how I am in the morning when I wake up. … That’s who I am every day.”

Being a part of the UK basketball program has a way of reciprocating that kind of energy.

As he spoke Saturday morning, Coleman noted that he’d been in Lexington for only about 36 hours, but he’d already seen what Antigua had told him about the manner in which Kentucky basketball consumes the city. “It just hits different,” Coleman said.

Doing something like this has clearly been on his list of career goals for quite some time.

“So when that opportunity came, it was a sweet deal, man. It was just so sweet — to say that I was coming to coach at Kentucky.”