Cal wasting no time turning UK into contender

May, 20, 2009
John Calipari could be competing with Bill Self for the national title just two seasons removed from their epic battle in the 2008 national title game.

The only difference is Calipari will be at Kentucky. Self is still at Kansas.

Calipari said he would get Kentucky in the national title chase. He didn't say when. And he said he had no idea it would be this quickly. He still is not ready to anoint the Wildcats a title contender. My colleague Dana O'Neil detailed their meteoric climb in a column Wednesday.

But it's hard to ignore the talent that is now in place at Kentucky. Calipari potentially has six players on his roster (if Jodie Meeks returns to school) who could be on the NBA draft's radar in 2010 -- from the potential top pick in John Wall to others like Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Darnell Dodson.

"We've still got to take six new guys and get them to learn the system," Calipari said. "We're going to be the biggest game on everyone's schedule."

While Calipari is confident every one of the newcomers will thrive in the dribble-drive-motion offense, he said he's concerned that early in the season, there will be a tendency to turn the ball over. He'll be stressing quality shots with his new team in the early going.

Calipari pulled off a coup in getting Wall, Cousins and Eric Bledsoe in the spring signing period. But all three were being recruited by Memphis when Calipari was the coach there. So it's not like he wasn't involved in the recruitment of any of the three prior to landing one of the premier jobs in college sports.

"We were lucky that there were three top players still available," Calipari said of Bledsoe, Wall and Cousins. Orton had signed with Kentucky when Billy Gillispie was coach. "Everyone acts like we're geniuses, but we were fortunate."

Calipari said he also will have to ensure that the players understand that they'll be the premier game on everyone's schedule. But that has nothing to do with Calipari or the Wildcats' current wealth of talent. That's expected of any player who goes to Kentucky.

Calipari said his ability to lure top talent is based on the results his formers players have had in the NBA draft, with Derrick Rose being the top pick in 2008. He also cited former UMass center Marcus Camby, former Tigers DaJuan Wagner and Chris Douglas-Roberts, and likely lottery pick Tyreke Evans from his Memphis team this past season.

No one disputes that Coach Cal is well connected in recruiting circles and knows the right people to contact for certain recruits. But he does have a winning record and he doesn't hesitate to promote his record of academic success. According to Calipari, while he was at Memphis, 19 of 22 seniors who stayed four years went on to graduate.

Getting Wall is the latest example of Calipari's ability to tap one of the country's best players for one season. He did it with Rose and Evans, and he's done it again now with Wall.

"We play a style no one else plays, and they see that," Calipari said.

Calipari said he already can envision playing at least three combinations with the current group of Wildcats. He said he could play one version with point guards Wall and Bledsoe together, two shooting guards (Dodson and Meeks -- assuming Meeks returns) and one big man (Patterson) while rotating in Cousins and Orton, among others.

He also could go with a combination of two bigs from the group of Patterson, Cousins, Orton and any of the reserves from last season and a 3-guard combination from the group of Wall, Bledsoe, Dodson and Meeks. Another option would be to go with Meeks, Dodson, Patterson, Cousins or Orton along with Wall or Bledsoe at the point. That would be a more traditional way to play. Any of these versions could make Kentucky a player for the national title along with Kansas, the previous overwhelming favorite.

"I'm so excited about next season, I wish we could start tomorrow," Calipari said.

Later Wednesday, after the Wildcats received Wall's national letter of intent, Calipari issued a statement, saying, "I've recruited John for nearly two years and I've gotten to know him to be not only a fine player but a fine person. He's a terrific teammate who wants to win, yet driven to personally improve."

• Kentucky's schedule has its usual daunting spots with games against North Carolina and Louisville, the series against Indiana and a tournament in Cancun, Mexico, against a rebuilding Stanford team and a reshuffling Virginia squad under new coach Tony Bennett.

• Calipari plans to meet with a few players this week to trim the roster from 16 to the NCAA maximum of 13. Kentucky won't say which players will lose scholarships and remain or be out entirely. The number of scholarships UK has to get rid of will go up to four if Meeks withdraws from the NBA draft to give Kentucky 17 on the roster for next season. Scholarships are renewable every year in the NCAA.

• Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds wasn't on the Chicago pre-draft combine list for next week. But that hasn't dampened his spirits in his attempt to stay in the NBA draft. Reynolds said Wednesday that he wasn't disappointed by not being included on the 52-player, invitation-only list.

"As of right now, I'll look to do it another way," Reynolds said.

He has worked out for Houston, Memphis, Minnesota and Washington and has a workout with Philadelphia set up for June 5. He also will participate in a New Jersey Nets-sponsored workout (open to all teams) on June 14, one day before the June 15 deadline to withdraw from the draft.

Reynolds said Villanova assistant Doug West has been helping him coordinate workouts. Reynolds said he plans on sitting down with Villanova coach Jay Wright to discuss the process so far but said he's "blessed to be in the position he's in" if he decides to return to school for his senior season. Reynolds did say he's not against staying in the draft if he's told he's a second-round pick.

"My teammates are constantly calling and texting me and seeing how I'm doing," Reynolds said. "I'm just trying to figure out the best decision for myself."

• Villanova did have a backup plan if Reynolds decides to stay in the draft: highly touted point guard Maalik Wayns. That's still the idea, but Wright confirmed Wayns is having knee surgery and will be out long enough that he turned down participating in the FIBA U-19 Team USA tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo., next month -- a team coached by Pitt's Jamie Dixon.

• Kansas officially announced that Xavier Henry's brother, C.J., will attend Kansas after sitting out last season at Memphis. Kansas said C.J. Henry will be eligible for the 2009-10 season.

• USA basketball put out the invitations for the World University Games team that will be coached by Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and will play July 2-12 in Belgrade, Serbia. The players who will be at the trials June 16-18 in Colorado Springs, Colo., to compete for the 12 spots are: James Anderson (Oklahoma State), Talor Battle (Penn State), Trevor Booker (Clemson), Craig Brackins (Iowa State), Da'Sean Butler (West Virginia), Sherron Collins (Kansas), Mike Davis (Illinois), Corey Fisher (Villanova), Lazar Hayward (Marquette), Robbie Hummel (Purdue), JaJuan Johnson (Purdue), Quincy Pondexter (Washington), Deon Thompson (North Carolina), Evan Turner (Ohio State) and Jarvis Varnado (Mississippi State). Varnado just withdrew from the NBA draft. Booker, Brackins, Butler, Collins and Turner all were considered potential early-entrants this spring, but none decided to declare.

Andy Katz | email

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