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Kentucky Basketball: Buying What Calipari is Selling

Coach Cal, who totally understands the value of brand, marketing, and selling the program, has been working hard trying to build the Kentucky brand back up to the extent that is possible in the off season.  He has launched a fancy new website,, which he updates periodically with pictures, blogs, and other content (I don't subscribe yet, so I really don't know what premium content is available there).  He has been busy giving interviews, talking to ESPN and reporters and generally trying to be everywhere, all the time.

From my personal standpoint, I think this is a job that needed doing.  Billy Gillispie just didn't really think that was part of his job description, and even though winning a lot of games will certainly take care of most of your marketing for you, the reality is that very few teams win all the time -- you have rebuilding years, you have off years, it happens.  And during those times, brand-building and hyping the program is even more important than when you are winning, and even more difficult because people are asking you to show them the wins.  Wins solve most ills in college sports that aren't related to some kind of unethical conduct, and no matter how successful coach Calipari is at producing a "buzz" in the sports media, he will be judged by what happens on the floor.

Right now, it is pretty easy to buy what Calipari is selling -- he has a great recruiting class, he has Patrick Patterson, a genuine Naismith contender coming back, arguably the best point guard in America (at least until he hits the floor in a real game) that's not playing in the NBA, and some other guys that, taken together, look like a "contendah."

So what can we look at to see how well Calipari will succeed?  Well, because he is bringing in a totally new system, I suggest we go back to his 2005-06 team where he first installed the Dribble Drive Motion offense at the University of Memphis.

Back in 2005-06, John Calipari had no less than seven new players, three sophomores, one junior and two seniors.  Now, one of those seniors was a very accomplished player, Rodney Carney, and sophomore Darius Washington Jr. was a stud. but that is reasonably analogous to what UK has returning.

The incoming freshmen were a very good class -- Shawne Williams was a 5* and the rest were 4* players.  Compare that to what Calipari has coming in to Kentucky -- four 5* players and a 4*, plus the best point guard available.

So how did 2005-06 Memphis do?  Not bad.  They wound up the season 33-4, which looks more impressive than it is due to the fact that Memphis plays in the exceedingly weak Conference USA.  But they did play some big games against some big names.  Let's see how that worked out for them:

November 25th 2005 in Madison Square Garden vs. Duke -- Lost, 67-70.  Duke Sheldon Williams dominated the Tigers inside scoring 30 points, and J.J. Redick scored 15 from the perimeter.  Still, the Blue Devils managed to overcome the young Tigers by only 3 points in only their fourth game using Calipari's newly formed DDM offense.

December 27th 2005 in the FedEx Forum in Memphis vs. Gonzaga -- Won, 83-72.  Adam Morrison scored 34 points, but it wasn't enough against the balanced scoring of Memphis, who had four players in double figures.

January 2 2006 in the FedEx Forum in Memphis vs. Texas -- Lost, 58-69.  LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker and Daniel Gibson were just too much for the Tigers.

January 18 2006 in the FedEx Forum in Memphs vs. Tennessee -- Won, 88-79.  Chris Lofton was not enough against the balanced attack of Memphis.  Once again, Memphis had 4 players in double figures.

March 2 2006 at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Alabama vs. UAB -- Lost, 74-80.  The Blazers put five players in double figures, and Memphis was in foul trouble all night.

March 25 2006, NCAA regional final at Oakland Arena, Oakland, CA vs. UCLA -- Lost, 45-50.  UCLA's brutal defense put the clamps on Memphis's DDM offense.  The Tigers' free throw rate was 27%, and the Bruins 97.5%.  That was the difference in the game.

Obviously, I think most UK fans would take a Great Eight appearance after four years of irrelevance, but with this class, this team, and four years to refine and learn to better teach his offense, I think that would be about the minimum expectation for this team.  I know it seems unfair, but you do have to understand that Kentucky will be bringing a higher overall talent level to the table than Memphis did in 2005-06.  There is no getting around that. 

Now, Calipari did have some advantages in that he had been at Memphis for several years and had established a culture there, so installing a new offense was maybe a bit less challenging.  But because so many were newcomers then, just as they are now, I think you can say that there really isn't all that much difference.

So what will we see this year?  Well, you probably won't see 33-4.  UK plays in the SEC, and UK plays better teams by accident than Memphis did on purpose that year, even though they clearly could have competed in and perhaps even won the SEC in 2005-06, although I think Florida would have had something to say about that, and perhaps even UK.

But as to whether Calipari can effectively install the DDM offense next year, that question has been asked and answered at Memphis.  Obviously, UK will be better the more experience they have with the system, but you can bet that this example will be thrown up after a bad loss if Calipari makes an excuse about time to learn the offense.  We have seen that he can do it, so now, we expect him to do it again.