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Kentucky Basketball: Should John Calipari Adjust His Thinking?

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We have seen it all over the Internet -- how Kentucky's young and extremely talented team was not enough to get to the Final Four, and the conclusion that it is the wrong way to build a college basketball team.  But is it?  Let's review.

Kentucky's problem over the last four years or so, if you ask most UK fans, was a dearth of talent, particularly at the lead guard position, and a lack of quality depth.  UK has usually had good talent on its starting lineup (Patrick Patterson, Jodie Meeks, Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley and Randolph Morris), but has lacked the kind of quality depth that leads to championships.

John Calipari addressed every single one of these shortcomings this year.  The 2009-10 version of the Wildcats had NBA lottery picks at three positions on the court and future pros at four positions.  Off the bench, it had a future pro (and possibly even a future lottery) pick as well as some solid role players.  This team won 35 of 38 games and reached the Elite Eight.

But clearly, expectations based on the above paragraph ought to be a Final Four at least.  Or should it?  Well, if you don't know the relative youth of the players in question, you might automatically say, "Sure, we should expect more."  But as I have maintained all season long right up until the blistering 3-game tournament run that ended in the Elite Eight, I cannot remember a time when a team this young got farther other than the famous Fab Five of Michigan.

Every watcher of college basketball will tell you that it is important to have at least a couple of future, if not present, first-rounders on your team if you expect to be playing on the last weekend of the season.  With the possible exception of Butler, who is the anomaly in this year's tournament, you have that on virtually every Final Four team.  But most of these players are not suiting up as freshmen, but as sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Which brings us back to the question -- did Kentucky's youth preclude them from a championship, and if so, what should Calipari do about it?

I think the answer to the first part of the question is a qualified "yes."  Clearly, the young Wildcats lost their composure a bit against the West Virginia Mountaineers when they had a lid on the basket (which was for most of the game), and that negatively affected both their body language and their concentration on defense.  West Virginia uncharacteristically making challenged 3-point shots only added to the young Wildcats' frustration, which boiled over midway through the second half when they repeatedly allowed WVU players to drive in for unopposed layups.

Which brings us to the second part of the question -- what, if anything, should Calipari do about it?

In the first place, Calipari should not stop recruiting talented players, even the most talented players, unless they don't fit UK's system or are a bad risk for some personal reason.  You'll notice Coach Cal did not recruit guys like Lance Stephenson and Renardo Sydney, presumably for good reasons.  This is not to cast aspersions on these two young men -- Stephenson has done very well at Cincinnati this year and Sydney figures to be a good player if he ever suits up in college.

But it is clear that Calipari doesn't just recruit everybody, and this year's crop of recruits Coach Cal hopes to convince to come to UK include Brandon Knight (an "A" student), Josh Selby, Terrence Jones, C.J. Leslie and Doron Lamb.  The upside to this batch versus last years is that none of them looks like a sure-fire lottery pick next year, although Brandon Knight and Josh Selby are certainly capable of getting there.

To me, it doesn't look like Calipari has been dissuaded in any way from going after top talent despite the possibility of a mass exodus this year.  On the other hand, the lessons from this year's class will not show up in recruiting for at least one more year, since it is pretty much too late to implement them as far as recruiting is concerned at this point in the process.

I am far from convinced that Calipari should change his philosophy.  Perhaps a tweak or two would be in order, but I don't think that involves eschewing a one-and-done if he can get him.  After all, Harrison Barnes, arguably the closest this class has to a true one-and-done, is playing for Roy Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels next year.  Barnes is also an outstanding student, so it will be interesting to see what happens if UK gets Knight at the end of next year as far as who turns pro and who does not.

In the final analysis, I do think Kentucky needs more experience than they had this year to succeed, and I believe Calipari understands this as well.  The 2009 class was unusually skilled, and John Wall is a unique, once-every-ten-year talent in the mold of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.  But no matter who comes this year to Kentucky, they will not have anywhere near the celebrity of John Wall, or even DeMarcus Cousins.  UK's recruiting class, even if it winds up the best in the nation, will look ordinary by 2009 standards.

So I guess my conclusion is that what we saw this year was an anomaly, most likely, and not something routine.  Kentucky will not likely be as good in 2010-11 unless Wall, Cousins or Patterson makes an unexpected return.  Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton's return would make another Elite Eight appearance more likely, but my gut tells me that UK is, barring a Duke-like draw in the tournament, Kentucky will have to wait a couple of years before their next appearance in the Final Four.  The days of seeing a mass early exit from the Wildcats are likely to be more over than not.

We need to see more experience at Kentucky, and I believe we will going forward.  Keep in mind, this is the very first year Coach Cal has been at UK, and what promise he showed us!