John Calipari stood outside the Kentucky locker room in April, maybe an hour after capturing the national championship and told a group of reporters that while winning it all was the fulfillment of a career-long dream, he had bigger, grander goals still.
“Before I leave coaching,” Cal said that night, “I want to coach a team that goes 40-0. Before I’m out of here. Before I’m done. And the reason is, they say it can’t be done. So let’s go try to do it. Let’s try to win them all.”
On Wednesday, like seemingly every recent week before it, Calipari landed another highly touted recruit and moved closer to challenging for that perfection. Not this season, mind you, but next.
The 2012-13 Wildcats are ranked third in the preseason coaches’ poll, so they could certainly win a national title. Calipari, however, is already warning the group may not be as good, at least from day one, as the Anthony Davis-led team from last year that finished 38-2.
It’s 2013-14 that’s actually shaping up as something historic and before we go any further, is it absurd, unfair, ridiculous and completely speculative to talk about next year when this year hasn’t even started?
Of course it is. But it’s recruiting season too and Calipari started it last April by bringing up the 40-0 stuff in the first place.
On Wednesday, UK secured another top recruit for the current high school senior class, this time 6-foot-9 Marcus Lee of Antioch, Calif. (Deer Valley). Lee, who is ranked No. 15 overall in the class of 2013 by rivals.com.
Last week, Calipari landed 6-8 James Young of Rochester Hills, Mich. (Rochester), the No. 8-rated player. The prior week delivered commitments from twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, both 6-5 guards, out of Fort Bend, Texas (Travis). They ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the country.
That’s four top 15 recruits in one class, and signing day is not until next month. The vaunted Fab Five of the University of Michigan [high school class of 1991] only had three recruits rated as high – Chris Weber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. The others, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, were top 100 prospects.
Kentucky also boasts a commitment from 6-8 Derek Willis of Mt. Washington, Kent. (Bullitt East), the nation’s 126th-rated prospect.
[From Rivals.com: Wildcats return to top of 2013 team rankings]
The big thing is that Calipari isn’t done. Not even close. There are still two possible major pick-ups. The first would be the nation’s No. 1-rated senior, 6-foot-9 Julius Randle of Plano, Texas (Prestonwood Christian Academy).
That alone would give Kentucky the greatest recruiting class of all-time.
Then there is the possibility that the nation’s top-rated junior, Andrew Wiggins of Thornhill, Canada (via West Virginia, Huntington Prep) would reclassify as a senior and join the absurd collection of talent. Wiggins hasn’t decided whether to do it – he’s old for his grade and doing so would get him to the NBA a year sooner.
If he does, he’ll supplant Randle as No. 1 overall in the Class of 2014 and could give UK five top 10 recruits and six of the top 15.
That isn’t recruiting, that’s drafting.
It’s also the kind of talent that can get you dreaming of 40-0. Such an accomplishment would also take chemistry, luck, health, coaching, karma and a million other variables, not the least of which is beating SEC rival Florida two or three times when the Gators are putting together their own strong recruiting class.
Chasing the first perfect season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers starts with talent though. Without the players, none of the other stuff matters. Calipari certainly isn’t worried about senior leadership or game experience.
“If I had my choice between experience and talent,” he said, “I’m going to take talent.”
Which brings us back to Wednesday, when Calipari spent the day at ESPN running through every imaginable publicity opportunity to promote a three-week “Hard Knocks”-style reality show about the start of practice for the Wildcats.
It shows the coaching, the facilities, the history and pageantry of the program, the rabid fans, and the demands that young, talented players are put under. It might as well be a video love letter to Randle and Wiggins.
“Everybody is going to be mad,” Calipari said of other coaches who dislike the recruiting advantage. “I know. Did I do it because of that, just to aggravate people? I might have.”
Say what you will about the underbelly of college recruiting and the used car aspect of many that succeed at the pursuit. We won’t stop you. But none of that is new, this sustained level of recruiting prowess is.
No one has ever recruited as well as Calipari at Kentucky. No one.
Part of that is because Calipari has to do it over and over and over. It used to be you landed a great center, you wouldn’t need another great one for at least two or three years. John Wooden at UCLA stockpiled prep All-Americans and they gladly waited their turn.
Calipari finds a new Lew Alcindor every year, works him relentlessly, showcases him to NBA scouts and sends him off, all while doing the same for two or three or four other freshman. And then he does it again the next season with a new group.
That alone is what spins players' heads. There are plenty of great places to play and plenty of great coaches to play for, but if you’re a recruit that resides in the top ten of a recruiting list, you know Kentucky and Calipari provide a ticket to the NBA, pronto. And then, as the list of rookies of the year attests, UK players thrive there.
Player development remains a cornerstone of practice. It’s hard. It’s demanding. It works. That’s the pitch.
“I’m not going to BS [them],” Calipari said. “This is how it is. If you don’t want this, then don’t come here. I’m not the only coach that can help you prepare for your dreams. This is what we do and how we do it. If you want this, it’s a great place to go. If you don’t want it, then go someplace else.
“We treat them right. It’s about them and they know it’s about them.”
He takes all the heat for saying it over and over. Draft day matters to him, as much as the Final Four it sometimes seems. Players have to be treated fairly and honestly, he said. It’s the only way for it to work or word gets out and you’re done. Kids, and their parents, he believes, will flock for a fair chance in a proven system.
“It’s a different time and age,” Calipari said. “If a coach is a jerk, they are texting each other, ‘my coach is a jerk, he doesn’t care about me.’ The 25-year-old ago model is out the window. It is. If you promise everything and you don’t follow through, that family is blogging you said this and this and this. That’s why I don’t tell you how many shots you’ll get, or [that they’ll be] starting.
“All I can tell you is our freshman have done well. I can leak you in on that secret.”
It’s working. Over and over and over again.
“I think Coach Calipari presented a challenge for us,” Andrew Harrison said when he committed. “He just told us from Day 1, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tough and he’s going to push us to become better players.”
Players believe it. That much is obvious. Combine that with the vast resources, national title banners and media attention of Kentucky. Throw in close ties to Nike boss Lynn Merritt and basketball kingmaker William Wesley. Have LeBron and Drake considered part of the family. Figure out how to get ESPN to do a reality/recruiting show.
The pull becomes overwhelming. Calipari is a great salesman and Kentucky has a lot to sell, but there are a lot of people and factors aiding in the sale.
The result is a recruiting juggernaut like nothing else college basketball has ever seen. Shake your head. Cast your doubt. Whatever.
“Whatever you think I am, I agree,” Calipari said last week at media day. “Now let me go coach my team.”
At some point you have to tip your hat.
This thing is rolling, which why Calipari wasn’t afraid to throw down the gauntlet of eventual perfection.
“We decided we wanted to go somewhere we could win as soon as we get there,” Aaron Harrison said.
That’s the expectation.
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