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Not Everything John Calipari Does At Kentucky Is Directed At Recruiting

Some people think that everything Coach Cal does is designed to help recruiting. It isn't.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a very interesting piece in The Cauldron entitled "The Reality of Modern Recruiting." This is an article about the plight of Kelly Oubre, a 5-star player who committed to the Kansas Jayhawks back last November. If you’ll recall from the Kansas game that Kentucky and UK played earlier this season, Oubre was not a major factor. To be fair, nobody on the entire Kansas team was a major factor in that thrashing, but please excuse the excursion into partisan hyperbole. Oubre logged just 13 minutes, fewest of any player for Kansas with significant playing time. He scored six points off a three, a two, and a free throw.

The article discusses, just as we have many times before here, the reality of the modern basketball recruit in the "one and done" era, but with emphasis on how little Bill Self has played Oubre so far this season. Consider:

The last thing Kelly Oubre needs with regard to his NBA Draft position is for a college basketball coach to marginalize his playing time in favor of the supposed collective good of the team. Nevertheless, through nine games Oubre is averaging only 10.1 minutes, 3.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 0.4 assists—not the type of numbers that will likely inspire the fan base of an NBA team choosing to draft him in 2015. Naturally, college basketball fans have been quick to champion the #FreeOubre narrative this season.

Heh. Well, far be it from me to say who a coach plays and who he doesn’t. Here’s the thing, though — there is little doubt that it does matter to parents of putative recruits. Should Kelly Oubre become a cautionary tale — and that sometimes happens no matter who the coach is — it’s hard to argue that it won’t help Calipari in a head-to-head battle with Self.

The article goes on to make this point:

Aside from Oubre’s lack of playing time, the other major storyline in college basketball this season is Kentucky’s "platoon" system. John Calipari’s calculated decision to play two rotations of five players relatively even minutes has somehow managed to mystify otherwise knowledgeable college basketball minds. Interestingly, the debate over the Wildcats’ platoon has largely been about whether it is an effective strategy to be utilized throughout the entirety of the basketball season.

Such a narrative, however, misses the point almost entirely: the Kentucky platoon isn’t about game tactics; it’s about recruiting strategy.

This isn’t quite right, but I don’t blame the author for missing the main point of why Calipari does this — it’s not quite self-serving enough to dovetail with the narrative.  Honestly, Calipari doesn’t need to use the platoon system for recruiting purposes — that’s simply a fallacy, even if it would be effective. Yes, it has the added advantage of helping out in that area, but that’s really icing on the cake. Calipari has recruited at the highest level both with and without it, and he just doesn’t need any help to recruit well.

As we just discussed yesterday, the real reason Calipari is using this strategy is much less subtle and much more conventional than most people seem to think. I get that a lot of people see "wheels within wheels" in Coach Cal’s words and actions. Given his success, it’s quite natural for the commentariat to imagine that he is college basketball’s version of Paul Muad’Dib Atreides, prescient in the ways of recruiting and the future of the sport. And in some sense, that’s a defensible, if allegorical, perception.

Calipari is using the platoon system to keep a promise, both to himself and to the young men he recruits. These kids are good enough to play serious time, and Coach Cal is all about them, and always has been. He has warned us before that in a players first program, the players’ needs come before his needs, and even the needs of the program. It does not come before the needs of the team and other players, but, as the saying goes, if you take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.

It’s easy to understand why some would imagine it’s all about recruiting, and for a fact, it will help recruiting (as if that’s actually needed). But in reality, recruiting is a very minor consideration if it is a consideration at all. John Calipari is just fulfilling his promise, and what he perceives as his obligation, to the young men under his charge and their families.

Everything else is just gravy.