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Kentucky Basketball: John Calipari Is Re-evaluating Recruiting

Nothing focuses the mind better than losing, both big games and big recruits.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

There is an interesting article over at 247 Sports talking about John Calipari’s recruiting style in light of recent events, specifically whiffing on a large number of five star players late this season. Consider:

Not knowing for sure what specific needs or roster spots he’ll have open, Calipari typically hasn’t extended scholarship offers until the summer before a prospects’ senior year.

But after a spring that saw the Wildcats lose seven early entrants to the NBA and then miss out on a slew of 5-star prospects, it’s become clear that Calipari has begun to rethink that approach.

Over the last five weeks, Calipari has issued a total of 10 scholarships spanning the 2016, 2017 and 2018 classes.

The article goes on to explain that this has as much to do with how coaches are changing their recruiting style to compress the recruiting calendar as the recent difficulties Kentucky ran into in late-year recruiting. We have seen recent offers from coaches around the country, including Kentucky football, for players as far out as 2018. It seems to me, in retrospect, that perhaps the much-maligned Billy Gillispie was ahead of his time in that respect.

It obviously makes sense for Calipari to be more certain of his roster than he wound up being this season, and I think this point, made by the article, is perhaps the most profound:

No school is the target of more negative recruiting than Kentucky. Calipari is now making an effort to forge stronger relationships, ones that can overcome the negative recruiting that takes place, particularly toward the end of a prospects’ recruitment.

This, I think, is really the key. Leave aside the negative recruiting, that’s part of college basketball, always has been and always will be. What saves you from the effectiveness of that tactic is having a strong relationship with your targets, and I think Coach Cal is one of, if not the best, at building relationships when he really works on them.

I think a couple of observations about Calipari are in order, and keep in mind that these are just my opinion:

  • I think Coach Cal was afflicted with a bit of overconfidence this season in general, as evidenced by his refusal to watch film on Wisconsin with the team. I just found this article in Grantland where Mark Titus got the same impression:

    The biggest reason I think this season is ultimately a failure is the sense that Calipari and Kentucky’s confidence prevented the team from reaching its goal. If Kentucky had done everything it could possibly do to prepare and Wisconsin had still won — as happened to Arizona in the Elite Eight — maybe it’s a different story. Maybe then, the Cats could just tip their caps, accept they were beaten by a better team, and look back fondly on the ride this season took them on. Instead, they’ll be haunted by what-ifs. What if the players had actually taken the time to learn Wisconsin’s tendencies? What if Cal had approached this game as if his team were the underdog? What if Cal had shown a single iota of respect for Wisconsin? If Kentucky treats Saturday’s game like more than a formality on the road to a championship, maybe it turns out differently.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that Kentucky’s season was a failure, but everything else fits right in with my thinking pretty well. Calipari committed the cardinal sin of not respecting his opponent — not because he deliberately disrespected Wisconsin, but because his focus was way too inward rather than big picture. He got the idea that if his team only executed their stuff well, the rest of the game didn’t matter. That was a mistake, and a direct descendant of one of the seven deadly sins: Pride.

    We all know that basketball is a team sport, but it also requires strategy and tactics. Calipari decided, I think, that the only thing that mattered was execution. In 20/20 hindsight, I hope he sees his error.

  • This same failing, this inward focus, is a big reason why I think the recruiting trail was so cruel to Calipari of late. He has developed the “Kentucky's not for everyone” shtick to an art form, and it just didn’t work this time. Perhaps it would work most of the time or perhaps not, but I think the inward focus, much more so than the platoon system, affected both recruiting and the ultimate result of the season.

It seems to me that Calipari’s new priority on relationships in recruiting, if that is indeed so, is the right medicine for the aliments of this spring. Even the best of coaches, just like the best of players, can start reading the accolades and believing their own self-talk. It often takes multiple jarring events, like the loss to Wisconsin and the hits on the recruiting trail, to force a re-evaluation and correction.

The big thing here is this: Learn the lesson. Life goes out of its way to teach us lessons every day. When we learn them well, we often look back and praise ourselves for doing so after that experience saves us from something that happens later. And we are never, ever too old, too good, or too lucky to learn.