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Friday, October 14, 2011
Same slogan, same hope at Kentucky

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Players first. That is John Calipari's mantra today, tomorrow and for as long as he remains coach at the University of Kentucky.

He said it at least four times during Thursday's media crush, unapologetically admitting that he is as committed to getting his players to the NBA after the season is over as he is to winning while the games are going on.

On the surface, what's wrong with that? Nothing. The NBA, not the NCAA, insists that kids intern in the college game for a season, so why shouldn't a coach turn around and help the kid a year later? Heck, it's nobler than 90 percent of the student-athlete-first mantra that's being shoveled around these days.

Besides, this isn't exactly breaking news where Calipari is concerned. He's always been ahead of the curve since the advent of the one-and-done. No one has figured out how to play the college game, as it is currently construed, better than he has. He promises kids the NBA moon and then delivers it on a string.

John Calipari
John Calipari, seen here at Thursday's UK media day, enters his third season with the typical high hopes.

And in the grand scheme of things, he has quite a bit to show for it: He rode Derrick Rose and Memphis to the national title game (asterisk notwithstanding); he, John Wall and friends were a few Joe Mazzulla daggers away from another one two years ago, and last season, Brandon Knight & Co., took Kentucky to its first Final Four since 1998.

In most places, that's a pretty nice little run.

But Kentucky isn't most places.

Calipari said so himself. Just a week ago, he made mention of the fact that Kentucky is a "unique" place.

"It's a unique thing," he said. "There's no other state, none, that's as connected to their basketball program as this one. Because those other states have other programs. Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It's Kentucky throughout the whole state, and that's what makes us unique."

Geographical indifference to Louisville aside, Calipari isn't entirely off base. There is no other state so breathlessly in tune with its college basketball program than Kentucky. This is, after all, where a brouhaha erupted after the school paper deigned to contact the walk-ons without permission.

Think about that. Who else knows or cares who their walk-ons are?

Which is the basis of Calipari's little conundrum.

Ask him which is more important -- six first-round draft picks each year or a national title and the smart politician will reply both. "Why shouldn't we want it all?" he said Thursday.

Ask Joe from Versailles or Erma from Paris (the Versailles and Paris in Kentucky, that is) and they will tell you give us our title, please. With another one to go.

"Kentucky fans, they expect you to win a national championship every year," said senior Darius Miller, a Maysville, Ky., native whose heritage allows him to speak without hyperbole.

So how does a coach get his own players-first mantra to coexist in a state that is program-first?

Calipari insists he doesn't have to.

"As long as I'm the head coach, [players first] is how it's going to be here," Calipari explained.

But as year one (Elite Eight) begets year two (Final Four) begets year three, each packaged nicely with a top recruiting class, the pressure and the expectations mount.

Kentucky will enter this preseason as the likely No. 2 team in the country, with a Dec. 3 date at Rupp Arena with their top-flight dance partner, North Carolina.

In Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer, they have one of the best recruiting classes top to bottom that this sport has seen in years. Mixed in with returnees such as Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Miller, who are a little more than merely able-bodied, and most folks already have penciled in the Wildcats for the Final Four in New Orleans.

Which is a rather high bar to set in an NCAA tournament that can rely as much on good fortune as great talent.

When does the multitudes of NBA draft picks add up to diminishing returns on the national title investment?

It has been 13 years since the Wildcats won it all, a blink for plenty of schools, an eternity for this one.

"Are we the only school that wants to win a national championship?" Calipari asked.

He's right, of course. On Friday night, when the ball goes up for Midnight Madness around the country, everyone has dreams of their shining moment. But that is the perhaps the one misstep -- or more accurately, misunderstanding -- in Calipari's players-first argument.

The rabid fans of the Big Blue don't care if you put 25 guys into the NBA every year. They want the corny song playing on the loudspeaker while their guys wear brand-new hats and T-shirts on a makeshift stage and their old wizened coach gets misty.

They want a banner. They want to watch their guys cut down the nets. They want the moment.

The players may come first at Kentucky, and that's fine. As far as recruiting slogans go, you could do worse.

But here, where the mere start of practice almost feels like a statewide holiday, nothing matters more than a championship.

In this commonwealth, among these fans, no mantra will ever replace that reality.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.