Kentucky Basketball Analysis: Does John Calipari's Controversial Reputation Matter To His Recruiting?

I found an interesting article today on a blog called the National Recruiting Spotlight that looks at the question:  "Does John Calipari's reputation hurt or help his recruiting?"  Results-wise, the question seems to have been settled, but there is more to it than that.

From a recruiting standpoint, Calipari's reputation contains two major components:

  1. A negative side that results from NCAA issues at previous schools, even though no responsibility for those issues has been imputed to him by the NCAA in either case, and;

  2. A positive side that results from the fact he puts players in the NBA draft at an astonishing rate.

When we look at the last three recruiting classes, there is no argument whatever that his reputation of getting players to the NBA quickly helps Calipari.  It also shows you where the mindset of the young players are -- they are not really interested in attending four years of college unless it will get them into the NBA as fast as possible.  A degree is a desirable, but secondary, consideration.  That's just reality in the one-and-done era.

Players who have NBA potential are identified very early these days.  Of course, a few of them slip through the cracks and don't get noticed until after their college careers begin, and some are just late-bloomers who need a year or two of college competition to bring out the diamond in the rough.  But these hidden gems, in general, are not the guys that Calipari has recruited at Kentucky.

Calipari mostly goes straight for the known quantity, the best players available in the nation.  Oh, he is certainly on the lookout for the sudden explosion of a phenom (witness the whirlwind recruitment of Anthony Davis, who burst onto the AAU scene just last summer), but for the most part, Calipari recruits guys who are known to have NBA-level talent.  These kids are all well aware of the fact that John Calipari has put nine players in the NBA via the draft, and seven in the first round, in the last two years.

Let's take a look at how players view the negative side first.  From an article on National Recruiting Spotlight:

"I’m afraid to announce that Kentucky is on my list of schools because I don’t want to be associated with all of that scandal and stuff like that," said a 2012 prospect who requested to remain anonymous. "It definitely hurts their chances because I don’t want to be known for and be suspected of cheating or anything like that."

I have no doubt that this kid, assuming he was ever considered to have Kentucky interest, has heard just this from every college coach with whom the subject has come up.  If I were a college coach and wanted to bash Calipari to a recruit without looking like an 18-year old with testosterone overload, I'd try to sell him just this message.  It sounds  rote to me, but perhaps it is just a thoughtful young man who is drawing conclusions from what he reads and hears -- after all, it isn't as if the vast majority of the sports media is Calipari-friendly.

So why would Kentucky be on his list of schools if Calipari were such a negative?  That question will probably remain forever academic, but if I were advising this young man, I'd tell him to talk to Calipari first, express his concerns honestly and forthrightly, and see how he likes the answers. 

After that, if he's still uncomfortable putting UK on his list publicly, he should probably just strike them off and move on.  After all, there are lots of good colleges out there who have coaches with impeccable NCAA reputations.  Most of them, however, try to hang on to good players and won't be honest with them about moving on to the NBA.

As you can imagine, that reaction was not whatsoever in the majority.  Here is an example of one that was:

"Seeing guys like Brandon Knight getting drafted Thursday means a lot to me," says class of 2013 shooting guard Isaiah Lewis, "because I know that Kentucky and Coach Cal produces pros and that’s what I want to be one day.

Now, this isn't rote -- this is real, and I would argue this is the honest sentiment of every single basketball player Kentucky recruits without any exception.  In fact, I would submit that if it is not, Calipari would identify that fact and cease that player's recruitment.

Calipari knows that his college-to-NBA-fast reputation is exactly what enables him to recruit national #1 classes like 2009, 2010, and 2011. It's not the number of NCAA championships he has won (0 so far) or his Final Four totals (3 unofficial, 1 official), or even the success of the school he coaches for -- Kentucky hasn't won a national championship since 1998, and has had only one Final Four since then. That's a long time in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world.  He doesn't have a blue-blood academic school like Duke University to make Kentucky more appealing to high academic achievers like Brandon Knight.

What he does have is something much more powerful from a recruiting standpoint -- a sterling reputation of getting kids to the NBA quickly, and at high entry salaries, by being honest with them about their draft potential.  To his target audience, that is the consideration that really matters, because it places the emphasis exactly where they want it.  The negative part of Calipari's reputation, if it is even a consideration at all, can be easily rationalized away.

But two things are required for Calipari to keep that reputation of getting players in the Association:  1) players who have NBA-level talent and 2) players who are willing to jump to the NBA as soon as they are ready.  If Calipari recruited mostly good players who took three years to get ready for the NBA draft, or those for whom the NBA was a secondary consideration regardless of talent, his reputation would soon suffer.

Kentucky fans are well aware that rivals and the media have, and continue, to trash Calipari's reputation when it comes to ethics and fair play.  That isn't going to change anytime soon for a lot of reasons, but the facts are that this negative aspect has had no discernible impact at all on his success at Kentucky, as his new contract extension suggests.

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