Signing the top available recruits is often the ticket to success not only within a conference but in postseason competition. When it comes to the SEC, one constant over the past 15 years has been how the Kentucky Wildcats have dominated the list of the conference Top 25 recruits over that time span.
The list, which is the final installment of CBS’ Top Recruit Series shows that eight of the top 10 players that ended up attending an SEC school since 2001 have ended up choosing to play for the Wildcats. That doesn’t even include UK landing five-star forward P.J. Washington and five-star center Nick Richards, both of whom committed on Thursday.
While current Kentucky head coach John Calipari gets a great deal of credit for this phenomenon, the fact is that he only arrived in Lexington in 2009. Prior to that, Tubby Smith gets most of the credit, though the origins began during the Rick Pitino era and continued in the early years of Smith’s tenure.
However, Calipari has amped up the enthusiasm to play for the Wildcats. That’s primarily because he’s been willing to work within the framework of the one-and-done rule that’s made the college game a brief stepping stone to the professional game. Since his arrival, four Kentucky players have been selected as the top pick in the NBA Draft, with Calipari able to offer cogent advice on what to expect all along the way.
John Wall was the first player in that quartet, playing for Calipari’s first Wildcat squad with Anthony Davis following two years later. In each of the last two years, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Simmons have rounded out the foursome.
The value of this recruiting model is that such past success is due in part to the fact that Calipari can tell a top player that despite the current presence of a standout player, that spot will be available the next season. That player who is destined to leave can then impart what to expect when they arrive, with the cycle continually repeating itself with each passing season.
The dual impact of that message helps keep bringing in recruits, while Calipari can also count on some influential players to seal the deal. One of those players is LeBron James, who established a relationship with Calipari during James’ own high school career, which ended in 2003, before the one-and-done concept was implemented.
In the Calipari era, Kentucky has only won one title, that coming in 2012. However, they’ve reached the Final Four in four of the last six seasons and the Elite Eight in five of the last six seasons. In 2014, they reached the national title game as an eighth-seed before eventually falling to Connecticut, 60-54.
That sustained level of success, the rabid fan base in Lexington and the charisma and cache that Calipari brings to a recruit’s table will undoubtedly continue to make the Wildcats a major player for every recruit.
Geography is not a factor for Kentucky’s recruitment, as only 1.4% of all college basketball players are from the state of Kentucky. Likely the only thing that can slow things down is when Calipari retires, leaves or the one-and-done rule is eliminated.
Until that time, expect to see Kentucky go deep when March Madness arrives.