Craig Victor, one of the nation's top power players (31 by ESPN, 41 by 247, 24 by Rivals and 19 by Scout) is a power forward out of New Orleans. Victor was recently quoted thus in the Courier-Journal:
"You know how the Cowboys are America’s football team?" he said Friday at the NBPA Top 100 camp. "I would say Kentucky is America’s team for all high school players. That’s the dream to play at Kentucky. I believe that."
That may seem bold, but the fact is that every year, players are begging for a John Calipari offer just as Chris Walker famously did last year. Kentucky is seen by most of the best high-school talent in the nation as the destination of choice. The best of the best are trying to get the attention of Calipari and Kentucky, just as Victor is now.
For many of the observers and fans of college basketball not from Kentucky, the perception is mixed. Many of college basketball's commentariat hold a kind of grudge against Calipari, either from the incorrect assumption that he doesn't play by the rules, or the basketball Luddites who refuse to embrace the reality of the one-and-done generation and conveniently choose to blame Calipari for it.
There was a time, ironically when Rick Pitino was here, that Kentucky was "America's team" in a real sense. The rise from the ashes of probation to one of the hardest-working teams in America helped fuel the "riches-to-rags-to-riches" story that people seem to love. There was a kind of Camelot atmosphere around the UK program surrounding their overwhelming 1996 season, and that feel-good glow that seemed to radiate out from Lexington had everyone loving the Wildcats. That was short-lived as Pitino rushed out the door to take the Celtics' millions, only to fail and return five years later to coach Kentucky's bitter rival, the Louisville Cardinals.
The negative attention surrounding Calipari makes a repeat of Camelot largely impossible these days. The media have sold too many people on the idea that Coach Cal cuts corners, and "low information" fans who think about college basketball mostly in terms of the Final Four have no real interest in figuring out the truth. Low information fans are happy to accept the opinion of "experts," regardless of how uninformed and jaded some of those experts are.
Which creates a most interesting dichotomy, one which sees Lexington as the proverbial shining city on a hill for most young high-school players, but a place viewed more like a kind of basketball Las Vegas by most non-Kentucky fans -- shiny and welcoming on the outside but soulless on the inside. Such is the polarizing nature of the Calipari mystique.
What outsiders don't see is the genuine affection that Calipari's players have for him, and the years they spent under his tutelage. You never see Coach Cal's former players making snide comments about him in the media, or expressing anything other than affection for him. Not only that, they come back to Kentucky to work on their degrees, if they left early, and to assist their former coach in community service efforts. This is all part and parcel of the relationship Calipari builds with his players, and the relationship that the players build with Kentucky's insatiable fans.
When you see 5 national #1 recruiting classes in a row, you understand quite clearly that when Victor says that Kentucky is the dream destination for the archetypal high school basketball player, he's not just blowing smoke. Many other schools get great players, but not like Kentucky. Not even close.