Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats Recruiting Revisited


When Kentucky hired John Calipari away from Memphis, only a few UK fans could imagine the wild ride that would be coming.

We all had some experience with Calipari from his time with the Massachusetts Minutemen (UMass) first with a 1991 visit to Rupp, and during our 1996 championship season. His UMass team beat UK during the '96 regular season and Pitino’s best team returned the favor in the one-and-done game that counted in the NCAA Tournament.

In that first game, UMass was ranked 5th and UK was ranked 1st in the A/P Poll. Calipari’s team had two guards who matched up well with Kentucky’s in Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso. The difference maker, though, was Marcus Camby who dropped 32 points on the Cats in 33 minutes of action. He went 11 of 16 from the field, 10 of 11 from the charity stripe and grabbed 9 rebounds. UMass out-shot and out-rebounded Kentucky and we had no answer for Camby. You can see the game stats here. UMass won 92 - 82.

This game, however, wasn’t the first encounter Kentucky fans had with John Calipari. We played them the year before and beat them 67-64 in East Rutherford, NJ after trailing 36-29 at the half. Camby only scored 5 points in that game.

In the game that mattered, the national semi-final, UMass was ranked #1 and UK #2 in the A/P poll. Kentucky led at the half 36-28 and won the game 81-74. Camby got his 25 points and 8 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. Kentucky hit 28 of 55 from the field compared to 29-62 and out-rebounded UMass 38-35. The difference was at the line where UK hit 22-30 compared to 13-19 for UMass. Both games that year could be considered classics.

As everyone who is not a Kentucky fan will remind us, Marcus Camby’s hiring of an agent caused the first rumblings of Calipari being a cheat. Kentucky fans bought into that belief as well, even though the NCAA said that Calipari was not aware. No matter, UMass and Calipari’s NCAA appearance was vacated.

We know his NBA history and his history at Memphis. Another vacated NCAA Tournament appearance in a ridiculous NCAA ruling where they ruled something was afoot with Derrick Rose’s transcript after clearing him to play at the beginning of the season. Again, Kentucky fans bought into the "Cal is dirty"and "Calipari is sleazy" campaigns.

The One-and-Done Rule

In 2005, the NBA and the NBA Players Association came up with the idea of an age limit (19) or the requirement that a player must complete one year of college before being drafted. Prior to that, players could go directly from high school to the NBA. Several players had practiced one-and-done before this rule was implemented, Carmello Anthony, being one. Derrick Rose and Greg Oden were a couple of players who took advantage of the new rule.

No one seemed bothered by Oden leaving Ohio State, but Rose was another matter. None criticized Rose, but there was plenty of criticism for Calipari. The new rule eventually brought about the myth that Calipari couldn’t coach. It didn’t matter that Cal had a 193-71 record at UMass and a 219-65 record at Memphis. The "can’t coach" campaign didn’t begin in 2005, however. It came later.

Recruiting Rankings

John Calipari left the NBA for Memphis in 2000 and Rick Pitino left the NBA to replace Denny Crum at Louisville in 2001. Tubby Smith had assumed the reins at Kentucky in 1998 and won a national championship.

Scout and Rivals began their team recruiting rankings, coincidentally, in 2005. ESPN began theirs in 2007, but it was for "Insiders" only until 2008 when they let the non-paying public in on their "secret" premium rankings. So we’ll begin with the Scout and Rivals rankings from 2005 and pick up ESPN’s in 2008.

Louisville: Scout: #5, Rivals #5
Memphis: Scout #6, Rivals #7
Kentucky was not in the Top 25 according to both Scout and Rivals.

2006 – The 2006-2007 season was Tubby Smith’s final season at Kentucky
Louisville: Scout #9, Rivals #9
Kentucky: Scout #16, Rivals #16
Memphis: Scout & Rivals: Not in Top 25

2007: Billy Gillespie was able to sign Tubby Smith’s top Recruit, Patrick Patterson
Memphis: Scout #4, Rivals#10
Kentucky: Scout #11, Rivals 13
Louisville was not in Scout’s Top 35 or Rivals Top 30

2008 – Derrick Rose leaves for the NBA after one season at Memphis.
: Scout #4, Rivals #6, ESPN #18
Memphis: Scout #6, Rivals #4, ESPN #14
Kentucky: Scout #15, Rivals #21, ESPN #19

2009 – 2013 Gillespie was fired in 2009 and the Calipari era began with 5 straight #1 classes through the 2013 class, according to Scout and Rivals. UK’s 2012 class was ranked second behind UCLA by ESPN.

During this period of time, the mantra was "You can’t win with one-and dones" and "Calipari can’t coach. He just collects future NBA players and rolls the ball out onto the court." An Elite Eight, a Final Four and the 2012 National Championship proved both claims to be false.

This past season showed that you have to have some leadership from returning players. UK had none of that. Returning players also should complement the young freshmen. Again, we saw none of that this year.

The lessons learned here should be that a full roster of scholarship players is a necessity for the team's depth. Trying to get by with filling out the roster with walk-ons and transfers has also shown not to work. You need one or two experienced players as shown by the 2012 national championship team. Those experienced players, though, have to be able to play. Darius Miller is a good example as was Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.

What we saw this year was a senior transfer who was supposed to be the 7th man get more playing time than any other player. The most consistent player was, arguably, a former walk-on who wasn’t talented enough to carry the team on his shoulders. This season was unique in that the guard play was atrocious. Plus, we had two very passive players who started off and on as the season wore on. Both proved that Calipari could not count on them to fulfill their roles with any consistency.

I don’t know who is going out the door or who is staying and there’s no point in speculating. We’ll find out soon enough. One thing is for sure, those who return are going to have to fight for playing time.

Potential Scholarship Returnees:

John Hood – 5th year Senior
Kyle Wiltjer – Junior
Alex Poythress – sophomore
Willie Cauley- Stein – Sophomore
Archie Goodwin – Sophomore
Jarrod Polson – former walk-on Senior
Ryan Harrow – Transfer Junior Transferring to Georgia St.
Possible, but not probable – Nerlins Noel – Sophomore

Already committed are seven players in the 2013 class which means we have a dilemma. If Wiggins commits, the dilemma becomes a problem if all the above players want to return. I don’t think it is likely that all will want to return, but you can clearly see the potential problem if they do. We will have a Rick Pitino situation where we have 16 15 players, since Harrow's announcement, (with Wiggins) for 13 scholarships. Pitino had 18 players before he "managed" his roster. I’ll let the readers decide the solution. [Editor's Note: This presumes a Noel return, which is unlikely]

On paper, this new class is the best since Michigan’s Fab Five. If we get that coveted commitment from Andrew Wiggins, it will be the best class ever…on paper. We will have signed the #1 player at every position.

Best Case:
The new class will be comprised of players who hate to lose more than they want to win. They will accept Calipari’s coaching and put aside the "I’m playing for me" concept and play for each other. If they can do that, then the sky is the limit. They are already the odds–on favorite to win a championship.

Worst Case:
The new class will come in with the same sense of entitlement issues (family health, etc.) as the last class and Calipari will have to do everything in his power to get them to play together as a team. The end result will be another failed attempt to win a title.

None of us know for sure what we are getting and won’t know until we see them play. Even in the worst case, I believe we will return to the NCAA Tournament. What we do there, though, is anyone’s guess right now. The question is, then, will the 2013-2014 Cats meet our standards and lofty expectations?

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