John Calipari’s Better Than You Think He Is

The 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team long ago stopped being a basketball team, instead morphing into a jumble of talking points, serving as a launching point to conversations discussing just how great this team is, and just how damning it is regarding the future of college basketball.

Anthony Davis ascent to superstardom was the most prominent storyline, documenting a player who possesses the preternatural ability to affect every shot within five feet of the hoop while also appearing to add a move to his offensive arsenal just about every week, accumulating moves and counter-moves, hooks with either hand and a trustworthy mid-range jumpshot. All of this effectively makes him impossible to guard, not to mention his skills as a passer. Of course, he was no one-trick pony; after all, he is only fourth on the team in shot%. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a ferocious slasher and a relentless defender with an unbelievable combination of size and athleticism, possessing all of the makings of a shutdown defender. Terrence Jones can score in a multitude of ways, Marquis Teague is as blindingly quick as they come in the college game and Doron Lamb epitomizes the term unsung hero, bailing out the Wildcats time-and-time again with his shooting prowess. That isn’t to mention reserve Darius Miller, a scarily efficient offensive player himself who is also a capable defender. 

To put it simply, they are absolutely filthy. At times while watching them, it became difficult to concoct ways a team composed of college student-athletes could actually score more points over a ten-minute stretch, much less for an entire forty-minute game. They did lose, of course; twice even, including once in the harrowed month of March in the SEC Championship Game. But they appeared to be operating on a different plane than the opposition frequently throughout the year, enough to incite asinine discussions pitting their talents against everyone from the ’96 Kentucky Wildcats to the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats.

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The first one, concerning whether this Wildcats squad is the greatest of all time or not, is nearly impossible to argue, due to the differences in era (sometimes immense, like comparing this squad to one of John Wooden’s undefeated UCLA teams) and other time-related concerns. They can be fun debates, inspiring nostalgic memories of the finest moments of a fan’s life and prompting on-the-fly analysis as fantastic as they are far-fetched. But, when it comes to really unearthing answers, it’s a fool’s errand.

The second question is a simple one: absolutely not. No way this Kentucky Wildcats team, nor any other college basketball team, could defeat a team full of grown-ass men who are paid, nearly all of them in seven figures, to play basketball. No matter how precociously talented Kentucky is, and no matter how how pathetic the Bobcats can look from time to time, UK would likely struggle to remain competitive. An NBA team is guaranteed to be substantially stronger, stronger and just generally more talented than a collegiate counterpart; think Kentucky could get away with playing only eight guys against a roster stacked with NBA-level quality?

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However, the third and final talking point presents a darker side to the Wildcats’ sheer domination. At least, some will have you believe such a dark side exists. Davis, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, is widely considered to be a mortal lock to be selected first overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. MKG is projected to immediately follow at #2, with Terrence Jones expected to fall somewhere in the lottery and Teague and Lamb slotted somewhere in the late teens or early 20’s. Five players, an entire starting lineup, projected to go in the first round. This would tie a record for most first round picks from a single school set by, who else, John Calipari’s first team at Kentucky in 2010. That class was also headlined by a pair of freshmen selected in the Top 5 (John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) with two other freshmen, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton, selected in the first 30 selections.

In two of his three years at UK, Calipari will have likely had five players selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. That’s unbelievably good, an unprecedented level of next-level development. 7 of the 10 were freshmen, however, and two more were sophomores. That’s abhorrently bad and, apparently, an unequivocal sign of the direction college basketball is heading, according to folks like Chuck Klosterman:

“You should not be able to succeed in this way. You should not be able to arbitrarily construct a Super Team that automatically achieves Super Greatness. It cheapens the experience. It feels cold and uncreative. That’s why traditionalists are always relieved when Calipari’s template collapses: It suggests there’s some inherent flaw to his philosophy that even he cannot see. It balances the system.”

Traditionally, playing a roster jam-packed full of underclassmen signifies a rebuilding year. Traditionally, the best teams, or at least the teams most predisposed to succeed in March, were veteran laden squads crafted carefully over time by a head coach with a Stalin-esque five-year plan, always looking not only at the season at hand but also at the next two, three, four seasons. This is typically represented by teams like this year’s Kansas Jayhawks, whose starting lineup consisted of a senior and four juniors, with only Tyshawn Taylor having started a game prior to this season. Traditionalists are comfortable with teams like Kansas because those have always been the best teams, and nothing appeases the old-schoolers quite like the comfort of believing everything to remain stagnant.

Unfortunately for these people, shit changes. Ideas are spawned and systems are implemented and freaks of nature grow seven inches in a calendar year while losing minimal coordination, flipping the status quo on its head and uncovering a litany of potential avenues to the mountaintop. The newfound strategy Calipari is most associated with is the one-and-done phenomena, the lightning rod topic which represents the only worthwhile topic, both in terms of meaning and viability of both sides. Coach Cal is famous (or is it infamous?) for bringing in star players, riding them as far as they take him (six of the last seven years all of the way to the Elite Eight) and then sending them on their merry way off to the professional ranks. However, it is not merely his impeccable salesmanship or, nowadays, his prior track record which draws the biggest and brightest prep stars to his side. It is his real innovation, one he did not pioneer but did bring to the mainstream, which is the biggest selling point of John Calipari, and the biggest reason why Klosterman and his like-minded brethren need to hold their horses before proclaiming the sport to be headed down a slippery slope to niche-status.

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In 1997, a high school basketball coach named Vance Walberg founded an offense he entitled AASAA, standing for ‘Attack, Attack, Skip, Attack, Attack’. The primary offensive weapon was the dribble-drive, forgoing traditional offensive staples like the pick-and-roll (screens as a whole are an absolute no-no in Worley’s offense because, in his estimation, they simply clog potential driving lanes) at the altar of athleticism. Once introduced to the offense in 2003 Calipari instantly fell in love with it, popularizing the offense with the aid of a more aesthetically pleasing moniker, entitling it the ‘Dribble-Drive Motion Offense,’ or as he is wont to describe it, the “Princeton offense on steroids.” It’s biggest strength is the immense freedom it provides the ballhandler, providing him little aid to gain separation by design, entrusting him to create an offensive opportunity alone. When run effectively, and with the proper amount of athleticism on the floor, it is nearly impossible to stop, requiring the defense to constantly chase-and-recover, opening up wide-open pathways to the hoop. Calipari added ‘rim-runs’ to the equation, encouraging his big men to charge towards the hoop in anticipation of a lob anywhere around the cylinder, expected to promptly flush the ball through if provided the opportunity.

This system favors athleticism, absolutely, and Calipari’s seemingly effortless ability to marry his ability to recruit the finest athletes in the country to the offensive system suited perfectly for their skills is undoubtedly the greatest reason for his success. One without the other leaves him with teams like Memphis in 2006, with a single superstar (Darius Washington Jr.) carrying them to the Elite Eight all the while carrying a clear expiration date, lacking the necessary firepower to reach college hoops’ final weekend.

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Calipari’s marriage of the best athletes and the perfect system began with the point guard, a natural fit given the incredible amount of leeway given to the players on the court. First came Derrick Rose, the player who elevated the Memphis program, and by association the coaching star of John Calipari, from almost-there to elite, leading his team to the 2008 National Championship game before falling short in dramatic fashion. Tyreke Evans, himself a top-3 recruit nationwide, followed, with John Wall and Brandon Knight continuing the tradition at Kentucky. This year he expanded the blueprint, adding not only a dominant big man to complement this year’s point guard du jour (Teague) but by also adding Chris Douglas-Roberts on steroids (MKG) and having the good fortune of actually returning pair of blue-chip talents. Put everything together, without even mentioning the college basketball landscape and, especially following the suspension of Fab Melo, its dearth of truly dominant teams outside of Lexington, and this was a special season not soon to be repeated.

There is nothing to be worried about in the long term. No dramatic, earth-shattering consequence whose reverberations will be felt years following this game, with the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats as the visible epicenter. Assuredly, given the copycat nature of sports as a whole, more and more teams will begin to adopt this offense, yearning to stake a claim to a bit of the magic which was in such large supply all year at UK. But nobody will be able to implement it quite as well as Coach Calipari. Similarly, other programs will continue to go after the most talented prospects in the country. Unfortunately, no matter how well-conceived your idealistic notion of college basketball may be, Kentucky wasn’t the only program recruiting Anthony Davis or John Wall or Derrick Rose or any of the other host of high school prospects who appeared to be, from the first time they stepped foot on campus, merely stopping through university for a single year before getting paid for their immense talents.

At Duke, Austin Rivers is headed to the league after one year. Both Xavier Henry and Josh Selby spent just one (disappointing) year in Lawrence while Kevin Love’s stay at UCLA lasted just a year. Until the rule changes, which is another discussion for another day, one-and-dones will continue to litter college basketball, wowing us with their incredible talents for such a brief time before bidding us adieu. I’m sure everyone would love to see Anthony Davis repeat his path of destruction next season (well, on second thought…), but it is an unfeasible reality not worth discussing. It’s also entirely out of the hands of you, me and, even if you don’t want to believe it, John Calipari. He’s playing by the same rules everyone else is. Don’t blame him simply for being a more effective recruiter or discovering a remarkably innovative offense and having the guts to overhaul his more traditional, motion-heavy offense to run it almost exclusively.

Calipari’s reputation oftentimes describes him merely as a recruiter; a pitchman whose job is largely complete once that year’s class has submitted their Letters of Intent. Little is made of the fact that his teams have ranked in the top 11 in defensive efficiency six of the past seven years, including four appearances in the top six. The offense is his primary selling point, but once the athletes arrive on campus he promptly whips them into shape.

Most of all, do not undersell the monumental task of managing egos amongst a team consisting of a boatload of superstars. When your two best players, both of whom ranked in the top 5 of every recruiting ranking and who figure to go 1-2 in the NBA Draft, rank 4th and 5th on your team in Shot%, and the team remains as gleefully happy as your average plucky high school underdog on a Cinderella run through the high school tournament, you deserve mountains of credit. It took a special group completely willing to cast aside individual accomplishments in favor of the greater good for a team, even one this talented, to become so dominant. Most of all, it took the coach mixing all of the ingredients together, only Calipari was forced to do it in a matter of mere months, unlike the years most coaches spend meticulously developing their rosters.

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Calipari is an easy villain, particularly now that he’s at Kentucky, perhaps the bluest of all of the blue bloods. His hair is greasy, he relies more on pure, unadulterated athleticism (by design, of course, but still) than most traditionalists would prefer and he just always seems to walk the fine line between charming and sleazy, charismatic and car salesman-fake. Personally, I don’t care for the dude. I’ll rarely, if ever, cheer for his teams (although I did have a serious thing for that Evans-led ’09 Memphis squad; blame KenPom) and don’t necessarily love the idea behind one-and-dones. But the dude can flat-out coach as well as anyone in the country, without a doubt, and that is something which has surprisingly not been mentioned with any sort of frequency throughout this onslaught of Kentucky coverage.

He believes in the one-and-done method, but only because he wants the best players to run his offense and, more importantly, form an impenetrable defense. He wants to win, just like every other coach in the country, and he’s doing it better than anybody else right now. It isn’t because he’s unlocked some secret pathway to success, a shortcut available for any coach with the right number of Top 20 recruits and the proper offensive system. He’s winning because he’s a damn good coach, the only coach in the country capable of seamlessly merging so many teenagers’ egos into one, cohesive unit while getting them to play their asses off on defense, set the world on fire on offense and, when all is said and done, sends them to make their millions playing basketball. He’s developed a unique system, yes, but it isn’t a cheat code to championships. It is an innovative strategy aimed at a competitive advantage which only works because he’s the one running the show.

Put simply, he’s doing his job better than anybody else in the country. That should be the storyline, not some bullshit about whether this team can beat the Wizards or how they would have fared against the ’67 Bruins. In the here-and-now, with the entire country playing under the same structure, no one is better.

Amidst all of the hype surrounding this Wildcats team, take that to heart.

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About Cory

I'm just an idea, nothing concrete
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