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Friday, June 21, 2013
At the Watercooler: State of Kentucky

By Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf

It's hot in Kentucky -- inside and outside of Rupp Arena -- so it's about time Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan took to the Watercooler to break down the current state of the Wildcats' program. Throughout June, we've been ranking the top 20 programs, according to their respective NBA legacies, in our Path to the Draft series. Surprisingly, Kentucky isn't No. 1. What gives?

Myron Medcalf: What's up, Eamonn? It's been too long, man. How's Chi-town treating you? Tell Kanye I say hello if you see him on the streets down there.

Today's theme is quite intriguing.

Kentucky isn't on top of our Path to the Draft rankings. But my guess is that five years from now the Wildcats will be the top team if we decide to reassess our current rankings.

John Wall and CeMarcus Cousins
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are two of the many players John Calipari has sent to the NBA.

John Calipari is one of the game's most polarizing coaches. He is the central figure in the one-and-done era. Somehow, he's convinced a multitude of high school All-Americans that they're better off playing together than they would be on separate teams.

He's pumping out pros at a ridiculous rate. We've never seen anything like this.

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight and Anthony Davis are just a few of the players who've gone on to earn NBA paychecks during his tenure. And there are clearly future lottery picks in the pipeline.

Eamonn, how does Calipari do it, and can he keep Kentucky on a national perch with one-and-done prospects alone?

Eamonn Brennan: Greetings, Myron. You weren't lying. This is an intriguing topic.

How does Calipari do it? There has always been an outsized interest in exactly what his "secret" is. Back at Memphis, it was assumed -- because Memphis hadn't had much success for a long time before Calipari showed up, at which point he started convincing guys like Derrick Rose to sign on -- there was something nefarious afoot. Many were convinced he had to be cheating, one way or the other. What he was really doing was offering players like Rose and Tyreke Evans a chance to play in a style that would best enhance their athletic advantages over opponents. He was trying to get dudes drafted.

Since he arrived at Kentucky, the value proposition has only been enhanced by the UK infrastructure -- Rupp Arena and the player dorms and the support and all the rest of it -- and Calipari has honed his message to young players and their families: If you come play for us, you don't have to choose between a national title run and an NBA lottery slot. We know how to get you both.

Not only is that probably true, it is based in a kind of respect toward players and their families, particularly those who are struggling, that simply wasn't the norm in the old-school, hard-nosed, Bob Knight-dominated 1970s and '80s. It's a respect that says, "We get it. Right now, your priority is the NBA. Of course it is! It should be! Let's talk about how we can get you there fastest."

People ask how Calipari does it, and while every player and family is different, I really don't think it's that complicated.

His Kentucky program has become the shortest route between high school and the NBA, an elite one-year graduate program. Just as important, in doing so, he hasn't treated that desire, or his ability to succeed by exploiting it, as any less noble than the classic model.

"A cycle of a family, of either poverty or lack of education, it's done now," Calipari said in 2012. "I'm having an impact -- 15 players, 15 millionaires in three years."

What's the secret? It's not much of a secret now, is it?

Your second question, whether he can keep it up, seems pretty self-evident to me. Just look at this year's incoming class. The better question is what, short of him leaving Kentucky, could change how successful Calipari is at attracting this talent? I'm having a tough time finding an answer. You?

MM: Eamonn, I'll just add to your thorough explanation of Calipari's success. He just gets it.

He's the anti-NCAA. The guy who laughs at the establishment and builds a powerhouse that belies the ideals of amateurism. Let's be honest. A lot of folks don't want to see Calipari win for that reason. They don't want to see Kentucky shine because players don't stay. And that contrasts the myth of the student-athlete and what college sports are supposed to be about.

But I really think Calipari's grasp of the times has fueled this rise. Players want to compete for a coach who's not going to give them a bunch of nonsense. As you mentioned, these are elite kids who want to play with the best and reach the NBA in one or two years.

Kansas' Andrew Wiggins
No. 1 overall recruit in 2013 Andrew Wiggins picked Kansas over Kentucky.

That's the goal, not graduation (right now).

I think Calipari is also wise to use the model that's worked at the next level. Young players today begin competing with the best in their age group when they're in elementary school. They're on the AAU circuit with the same elite guys for many years. They're not rivals anymore, they're friends. And that fuels this new wave of talented players joining forces in the NBA.

I think the Miami Heat have affected the mindset of young players in college. You can go to Kentucky to play with six other All-Americans because there's plenty of room in the NBA everyone. And if we're all winning, we're doing the right thing.

Now, what would change this pattern? I think Calipari represents a new breed of coach who recognizes that the one-and-done generation is vital for success at this level. You can revolt against it. Many have. But Calipari has embraced it.

If more coaches latch onto the same philosophy, Kentucky could lose its grasp on the top prep talent in the country. And perhaps Andrew Wiggins choosing Kansas signals that change.

I always hear coaches say, "I'd take a one-and-done anytime." But, as you mentioned, it goes beyond recruiting kids. It involves developing an entire mantra within your program. "We're chasing these kids because they're going to help us win. It's that simple."

But a lot of coaches are too stubborn to change.

Eamonn, Calipari had talent and experience when Kentucky won the title in 2012. He has one of the greatest recruiting classes in NCAA history entering next season. But he also has youth already on team, as well as a few veterans. If this group fails to reach the Final Four (or worse), will that be a sign that the one-and-done era is overrated?

EB: Nah. I mean, things happen in March, right? Save last season, when it went out in Moon, Pa., and UK has been at least as far as the Elite Eight in all of Calipari's seasons at the school. The Wall-Cousins team lost to West Virginia because it missed approximately 8,000 3-point shots -- because no one on that team could shoot -- but it was nonetheless a very good team. It was followed by another great team, which was followed by the group that won the national title in 2012. There's a clear pattern of success here that goes beyond whatever can happen in a freak one-game sample at the end of the season.

If Kentucky doesn't get to the Final Four this season, sure, that's disappointing -- it's probably always disappointing for UK fans, who by now expect that sort of success. But it shouldn't serve as a referendum on anything larger than that.

Speaking of the one-and-done era being "overrated," I'm not sure you meant it this way, but here's one way it actually is overrated: It's not like you have to pursue Calipari's strategy to win a national title. It isn't a one-to-one arms race. There are plenty of coaches who are still building in more classical ways, mixing in talented young freshmen with sturdy veterans and players who develop over the course of their careers.

Louisville just won the national title with a team full of such players. Even Kentucky in 2012 had sophomores Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and senior Darius Miller. This season, UK will benefit from having sophomores and a junior or two.

So, on the one hand, we have to praise Calipari for the immense recruiting job he's done in the past five years. On the other hand, we should be careful to conflate UK's strategy with the sport in general, or make some sweeping assessments when we're really talking about one school.

MM: You make some valid points.

You're right that Kentucky's method has been notable for its uniqueness and success rate. But it's certainly not the status quo in the game.

Butler reached two Final Fours without one five-star prospect. That Connecticut team that won a championship in 2011 wasn't stacked with McDonald's All-Americans, either. Louisville won the 2013 crown without one top-10 draft pick.

But that's why I think next year is so significant. Sure, Kentucky fans have high hopes for a squad that boasts six McDonald's All-Americans (a record). They should have high expectations for that group. But I think there's a lot of excitement outside Lexington, too.

Next year's college basketball climate will feature a slate of veteran teams that return their anchors for 2013-14. Michigan State is stacked with Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. Michigan brought back Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. Florida should be a top-10 squad in the preseason. Louisville lost Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva, but Rick Pitino signed a pair of talented guards and he still has most of the pieces from his national title team.

Still, the early consensus states that Kentucky should win a national championship.

Perhaps that's unfair. But we've never seen an assembly like this one. And much like last season's team, it will be thrust into a landscape that includes a lot of veteran talent.

Kyle Wiltjer
Returners like Kyle Wiltjer will provide experience to the 2013-14 Kentucky roster.

I know it's early, Eamonn. But what are your expectations for next year's Kentucky squad?

EB: I'm not sure why the expectations should be anything but high. Kentucky is adding not just the consensus top recruiting class in the country this season, but the best ever -- better than the Fab Five, according to RecruitingNation's Dave Telep (and most, if not all, fellow recruiting analysts). Even if UK's assets this season were its freshmen alone, that team should be considered a national title favorite, if not the pick to win it all.

It's also worth noting that UK has some veterans in the mix, too. Kyle Wiltjer will be a junior. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are very talented guys who couldn't figure it out last season but will have big roles to play on this team, a la Lamb and Jones in 2012.

That's the thing I think a lot of people casually gloss over when they talk about that 2012 team. Having the refined shooting of Lamb, the plug-and-play defensive abilities of Jones (who could guard on the block and out on the wing) and the selflessness of Miller coming off the bench were huge factors in that team's dominance. It would have been a really good team without them, no doubt, but with them it was something more. Even the Wall-Cousins-Eric Bledsoe group in 2010 had Patrick Patterson in the mix. We all remember Knight's shot to beat Ohio State in 2011, but if Josh Harrellson doesn't do the job he did on Jared Sullinger for the previous 40 minutes, Knight's shot never happens.

This is another area in which the one-and-done stuff can go a bit overboard. Even at Kentucky, where elite freshmen are more integral than any program in college basketball history, the greatest successes have come when UK has had at least a pinch of veteran play. The people freaking out in April 2012 that Calipari had fundamentally altered college basketball for the worse oversimplified all of this stuff. That 2012 group was special for reasons that went beyond Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Teams really aren't that simple; they can't be boiled down to just "talent" or "experience," as though never the twain shall meet. You can have some of Column A and some of Column B. You can have neither. (Which, hello, UK 2012-13.)

It's when you have the right mix of both that great teams are born, and I think the latest edition of the Wildcats is in that mold. Expectations should be high … but let's make sure they're high for the right reasons. Does that make any sense at all?

MM: It makes complete sense.

And you know what? I'm so excited for next season as I think about the possibilities.

I'm not sure if Kentucky will meet the hype. I'm not necessarily sure that they can unless they win the national championship and win it with relative ease. The latter won't happen.

There are just too many good teams out there. But I could certainly see Kentucky on the podium in Arlington, Texas, in a year.

This is what makes college basketball so intriguing. Winning seems formulaic on the surface,but subjective mechanisms such as chemistry and maturity are critical factors for championship squads.

You're right about the veterans. Wiltjer, Cauley-Stein and Poythress have to play significant roles next season. In the locker room, too.

But this collection of talent is unrivaled. And I agree with your point that it's not fair to make a lot of grand assessments about the college basketball landscape according to one team's successes or failures. It will happen, though.

That's a torch that the 2013-14 freshmen on that Kentucky team will be forced to carry whether they like it or not.

In the eyes of many, their accomplishments and struggles will be used as fuel for those who disagree with Calipari's methods. I think he's just recruiting well. And he's getting good stuff from a few veterans.

But there's certainly a old school versus new school argument that has surrounded the arrival of this uncanny Kentucky class. And it's not fair or accurate or sound to place those parameters on the discussion. But I think it's the reality.

"Can these young guys match the expectations?" seems to be the theme just months before the 2013-14 season.

Eamonn, I just want to see these guys play. And I want to see how they handle things at this level.

I can't wait for the season, man. And Kentucky is certainly a part of that.

EB: One hundred percent. College basketball is in a somewhat weird place these days, but that weirdness provides some fascinating opportunities. Every season, we get to run a new test case on the limits of talent, the importance of experience and what a season that ends with a six-game elimination tournament can provide. Last season had its ups and downs, but it couldn't have finished any better. Next season is going to be every bit as interesting.