Whether or not you choose to believe it, there is a perception that exists in the world of college basketball at this very moment. It’s the conviction that many within the inner sanctums at the highest levels of college basketball share. Some even acknowledge it though they won’t say so publicly.
They can’t beat Kentucky on the recruiting trail.
When asked if it was a good idea to root for John Calipari and UK in the championship game, one high-major assistant conceded. “I probably should,” the coach said. “Maybe he’ll leave [for the NBA] if they win.”
And that’s what it has come to for people who aspire to recruit against the Wildcats.
The Kentucky Wildcats, under Calipari, are the dominant recruiting program in college basketball. They own the nation’s past three No. 1 recruiting classes and have an inside track on an unprecedented fourth in modern times. They are in the midst of a recruiting dynasty and Monday night’s championship game was the coronation of the champion on and off the court.
Beating Kansas 67-59 allowed Calipari to hoist the national championship trophy and exorcise any basketball demons that haunted him in past shortcomings. There isn’t a coach in the country who can continue to use the “they can’t win the big game with one-and-dones” anymore.
Whispers heard. Point proven.
And it's not over. Arizona’s hold on the top spot in this year's recruiting class is in jeopardy. As the Big Blue spend the next few days being serenaded and celebrated, two kids -- Shabazz Muhammad (rated No. 2 by ESPN) and Nerlens Noel (ESPN's No. 1) -- will watch it all unfold. At least one of them is going to Kentucky; any result other than that would be shocking. Landing both of them would surprise no one. Missing both isn’t likely to happen. History, and recent recruiting success tells us it’s not likely to occur. It’s possible, but highly improbable.
Calipari has established an ongoing pipeline from Lexington to the greenroom of the NBA draft. He holds the keys to an NBA future and that’s the single most important thing to kids of this generation. Tyler Hansbrough coveted a national championship. Those guys are few and far between in terms of the elite players, in 2012 and beyond.
The mindset of many players has changed and evolved. Kids would rather go through the drive-thru line than take their time and stay a while in college. Kentucky is the undisputed leader -- and it’s not even that close -- of one-and-done players. Calipari doesn't agree with the NBA rule but he sure knows how to work within the confines of it. Plus, the guys they’ve put into the league are, for the most part, playing well in the NBA.
On top of the ridiculous success Cal has had in Lexington (still undefeated at Rupp Arena), he claims Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans as pseudo-Kentucky guys because, whether they are Tigers or Wildcats, they are part of the pipeline of one-year collegians who went directly to the pros that Calipari has skillfully crafted. The brand is stronger than anyone’s, the recruiting pitch has no holes and the success rate would be silly to challenge. Where’s the weakness?
What about the vacated Final Fours under Calipari’s watch? Legitimate question, but it’s more important to the fans than the kids. Those wins aren’t coming back and they can’t be swept under the rug. Those victories and the subsequent penalties happened. The issue there is that a vacated Final Four at Memphis and another at Massachusetts means zilch to many high school stars who now see a national title in their first season en route to the NBA. Kids live in the moment. They worry about the now. Not every elite player buys the UK pitch, but of the ones who do, UK mows them down.
Trust me, the elite programs in college basketball know this is true. They also know that the climate in college basketball, the setup Kentucky has and the roll that it has on is as close to a sure thing as we’ve seen in quite some time. The Cats sit atop the college basketball world both on the court and in recruiting arena.
It’s not crazy to adopt a new ideal. Using the theory “he’s going to Kentucky,” especially if it’s a one-and-done player until otherwise notified, isn’t a bad bet. There are too many cases to argue otherwise. Sure, every now and then they’ll lose out on a guy they truly wanted. That might happen next week. But at this moment they are prohibitive favorites for nearly any player that they elect to offer a scholarship. They are that dominant.
Kentucky unleashes a pro approach to nearly everything in their program. Calipari’s “Pro Day” idea … brilliant. UK’s embarrassingly lavish dorm set up … spectacular. Drake. World Wide Wes. LeBron James. Ashley Judd. Former pro players on the coaching staff. … Use it if you got it.
The Wildcats are national champions. They are also a problem for the upper crust of college basketball programs that don’t reside in Lexington, and that includes everybody. From Duke to Carolina, from Kansas to UCLA, Florida to Connecticut and everyone in between.
Competitors -- publicly and privately -- understand the risks of going all-in against the Wildcats for a player. You might get blasted by the force of the snowball that Calipari pushes down the mountain. It’s rolling downhill and you either get out of the way or make an erroneous business decision to take a stand. Either way, the momentum for the Cats carries them to new heights in the present recruiting landscape.
Monday was the byproduct of the talent acquisition's endgame. There’s likely to be more because this program plugged up the biggest hole in its recruiting pitch. Now you can be the first pick in the draft and national champion.
There is nothing more to say. The recruiting pitch is complete.