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Kentucky Basketball: The Calipari Conspiracy

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This could be the title of a movie.

I am just amazed at all the conspiracy theories that have surrounded John Calipari since he decided to take the Kentucky job.  I know that college basketball fans, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a season where there is little to talk about except recruiting, have a lot of time on their hands and very little information about how the nuts and bolts of the recruiting process works.

Having watched the Big Blue Nation try to pry, divine, and otherwise glean insight from the stubble of information that is publicly available about Marquis Teague's recruitment, I'm not surprised to see all sorts of theories pop up -- Louisville's newly-announced game against Butler was arranged to entice Teague and Pitino's new contract extension through the 2016-17 season was designed to reassure him, etc.

As far as I can tell, Teague never seriously considered Butler, even though he lives very near the school.  The theory is that the Butler/Louisville game was arranged so that he would be able to play in front of his family and friends for his "one and done" year, and I suppose that's not inherently implausible, but it seems like a lousy reason to pick a school. 

As for Pitino's extension, well, that makes sense for all kinds of reasons.  Pitino has been under fire for some personal indiscretions, and Louisville needed to decide whether or not he was going to be their coach of the immediate future or not.  Anytime a college coach's contract duration gets under four years, it can become a recruiting issue that rivals will often use against you.  But if Teague is as good as everyone thinks, why would he even worry about Pitino being there past 2013, when Teague would presumably be gone after the 2012-13 season?  I seriously doubt that John Wall would have sweated Coach Cal's contract if it had been only 3 years when he came, but DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton may have.

At least these theories have a ring of plausibility to them, though.  They actually make sense on some level, even if those reasons were not the drivers for the these two things.  Call it serendipity, or whatever.

But there are some that make no sense, and just how little sense is becoming more and more clear.

Yesterday, Gary Parrish had this article, which falls under the rubric of, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."  In it, he explains that William Wesley, the infamous "World Wide Wes," is a very powerful man in basketball circles -- too powerful to be an off-the-payroll recruiter for John Calipari.

What Wesley actually does is poorly understood (and frankly, none of our business unless he is violating the law or some NCAA rule, which has been examined at least once by the NCAA), but he clearly does have some influence over some decisions that players make in the sense that a friend or a business adviser might.  He does not obviously have the ability to "steer" players to a school, a team, or an agent, but he may well have the ability to make a case for them to do so that is persuasive to some.  He is connected with high-profile NBA types like LeBron James (who's success every young college player wants to emulate), and Michael Jordan among others.  He also is connected to rap music figures that many players seem to love, as well as hip-hop and other pop artists like Beyoncé Knowles.

Seth Davis has reported recently that Wesley is now coming out of the shadows to represent coaches (mostly NBA but also some college) on behalf of Creative Arts Agency.  This will likely significantly expand his circle of friends in one area, but somewhat contract it in the area of actual players, since there will be conflicts of interest involved and less time on his hands.  No matter what, though, it will expose Wesley to more scrutiny, which he is apparently willing to accept.

But most importantly, William Wesley is connected to John Calipari -- they are apparently good friends.  This controversial connection surfaced big time last year when Josh Selby, a highly-ranked 2010 guard who had committed to Bruce Pearl and Tennessee in his junior year in high school, decided to reopen his recruitment.

You remember this, right?  You remember how some in the media pointed to a conversation between William Wesley and Josh Selby's mother around the time of the LeBron James Skills Academy, shortly after which Selby reopened his recruitment?  You remember the charges that Wesley is connected to Nike (he is) and Tennessee wears Adidas, and voila!  It was an obvious case of Wesley tampering with recruiting on John Calipari's behalf, and shoe money was behind it.

Never mind that Selby denied knowing Wesley, and that his mother denied any of the rumors created by this confluence of events.  But that didn't matter.  This conspiracy theory was too good not to be true.  The Tennessee assistants ginned it up and Bruce Pearl allowed it to fester into a big, pustulating boil.  This was nasty.  This was messed up.

And Josh Selby committed to ... Kansas.

To the conspiracy theorists, this is vindication of their theory -- the "U" and the "K" are still there, Calipari tossed Self a bone so he could sign Michael Gilchrist and Brandon Knight, two players that were obviously headed elsewhere without the nefarious Wesley pushing his magic button.

But then, just when you think you have it all figured out about Wesley, there is this:

Back to Main Street: We're standing with a young player who wants the night to keep going. The young player pushes to find another bar even though the odds are against it. Uncle Wes makes a face. He's squashing this right now.

"Nothing good can happen at this point," Wes explains simply. "You can't chase the night. When the night is over, the night is over. That's just the way it is. You just gotta wake up tomorrow and hope for a better day."

Uncle Wes had spoken. I am not exaggerating by saying it's a strangely profound moment. Within 15 seconds, our group splinters in three directions to look for cabs. I find one with my friend Connor. We climb in. We look at each other.

"I will never be able to properly explain that story to anyone," Connor said.

Agreed. You can't chase the night. It was like hearing a human fortune cookie. I went back to my hotel, took my contacts out, crawled into bed and hoped for a better day. These are the things that happen at NBA All-Star Weekend. [Emphasis mine]

I find that unbelievably profound, a side of Wesley that few outside his "nephews" have ever seen.  If this is the sort of advice he gives to young AAU players, I have to tell you they could use a lot more of it, and it's likely a sight better than what they are getting from their AAU coaches.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists are all over the Marquis Teague situation, and boy, if Teague commits to Kentucky (which I don't think he will -- see John Clay's column today for why), the long knives will be out for Calipari.  "Too much success in recruiting," they will say.  "Something shady's going on."

All I can say is this -- Calipari has marketed his NBA connections to perfection.  Other coaches have done this too (see Pitino, Rick), but not as successfully as Calipari.  Most of the college coaches who were formerly coaches in the NBA have basically eschewed their NBA connections and have tried to trade mostly on the fact that they have experience at both levels of the game.  Not Calipari.  He has nurtured and developed ever more valuable NBA connections and allowed the fact that he has those connections to be widely known, and to work their magic on these young men.

Calipari does not need to have LeBron or William Wesley "advise" his recruiting targets to come to Kentucky -- they already know that Calipari has those connections.  They already know Calipari has a track record of getting players ready for the NBA.  They already know that Calipari plays an NBA-ready style, and that he is friends with lots of NBA superstars including LeBron James.  They know that Calipari has coached in the NBA and, unlike other coaches, continues to develop relationships with the movers and shakers in that league.  Calipari has boldly gone where his peers were irrationally afraid to go, and he is reaping the rewards of his efforts -- which, by the way, appear to be perfectly above board.

Unless, of course, you are a rival fan, or a rival program.  Then, you need conspiracy theories to get you past your disappointment, either at your school's failure or Kentucky's success.  He just can't be that good, right? 

Wrong.