By Matt Murray
In the evening hours of March 25, 2009, Lexington, Kentucky was solemn and quiet. All that could be heard was the sound of a buzzer going off on the few TVs that had been left on long enough to watch the Kentucky Wildcats fall by double digits to Notre Dame in the NIT. It was rock bottom; the end of a long slide from the top of the mountain of college basketball. Kentucky had missed the tournament for the first time in 17 years, and their new coach, Billy Gillispie, had seemingly put the finishing touches on running the program out of the spotlight.
For years, Kentucky had thrived in an era of college basketball in which dynasties were the key to success; building and sustaining programs was forged on the foundation of long-term players. But with the introduction of the one-and-done rule, Kentucky was unable to find a way to survive in a new era of basketball. That all changed on April 1st, 2009.
In the span of a week, Kentucky ousted Gillipsie and brought in one-and-done expert John Calipari, who promised the power of his recruiting, mixed with the historical prestige of Kentucky, would be a potent mix that would allow him to create a modern-day dynasty in Lexington. He admitted it would be a different feel, one that would put players before the program, but that’s how a team must survive in this basketball landscape. The teams will serve as revolving doors to the NBA, but it’s the only way to ensure the best of the best want to attend your school. They have to spend one year out of high school before they head to the league, and Calipari has made it nearly impossible to explain why you’d want to spend that year anywhere else but Lexington.
In many ways, this puts more pressure on the coach, as he’s in turn responsible for teaching a group of brand new guys each year, convincing them to buy into his system. And that’s exactly what Calipari did, beginning with an Elite Eight in his first season, and a Final Four last year. There was one big chink in Cal’s armor- he had yet to prove his system could result in a national title. But just three years after one of the darkest April’s in Kentucky’s history, John Calipari led Kentucky back to the top of the college basketball mountain, just as he’d said he would do in his inaugural Big Blue Madness.
This year felt different from the start. Some of those potential one-and-done guys that surely could’ve left for the NBA after a single season (Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb) opted to stick around in the hopes of helping one of the most talented teams to ever play college basketball bring home a National Title and one 4-year senior in Darius Miller somehow found a way to serve as the glue that held a team of youngsters together.
But the key? Calipari. He found a way to neutralize the potentially dangerous mix of 5-star players by turning them into a unit, rather than five individuals. They were unselfish. They were talented. They were the “Undeniables.” Calipari insisted throughout the year that this whole season was about the players, and he constantly reminded them to have fun, even asking them to remind him to have fun if it seemed like he wasn’t. On April 3rd, the day after the Cats dropped Kansas, when the bus pulled into Rupp Arena, Calipari sported a smile bigger than anyone else’s in the gym, letting off a string of emphatic fist pumps on his way to the podium to address the Big Blue Nation. He may have repeatedly declared that he didn’t care about getting a title, but he looked as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. And now, he’s using it as a recruiting tool.
“We can recruit the best of the best,” Calipari said it on April 1, 2009 when he was hired, and he repeated it on April 3, 2012 in Rupp during the title celebration. Calipari has transformed Kentucky basketball into a new-age dynasty, built to survive during the one-and-done era. The jealous will point the finger and say he’s ruined the system, but when they stop to consider it, the truth of the matter is that he didn’t create the rules, but simply mastered a way to capitalize on its existence. He’d already found success at UMass and Memphis before the rule even existed, so it nullifies that argument in the first place.
Dynasties aren’t dead. They’re different, and Kentucky has simply become the model; a design other teams will have to follow if they want to have the success John Calipari has already found, racking up more than 100 wins in his 3-year stay so far in Lexington. His next goal? “I want to win 40,” he said in his post-game interview after his team dissected Kansas on April 2nd in the National Title game. “We’ve already set the record, but 40 can’t be done. I want to do it.”
If Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel come to Kentucky (and the truth is now, why wouldn’t they?), then who knows what Cal’s 2012-2013 Cats will be capable of. But the devastating truth for the rest of the country is Calipari’s system has been proven effective, and the more hardware and wins he accumulates, the more effective he’s going to be.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.