Once again, the fans have spoken. And, once again, they aren’t exactly sure of what they want.
For about five years they were ravenous for a coach who could deliver the kind of recruiting news that would make them literally count the minutes until Midnight Madness rolled around. Finally, their wish came true. And now some are wondering if they should have been more careful with their wishes.
Tubby Smith’s stay at Kentucky would have stood as a solid body of work, had a couple of seasons of slip-shod recruiting not eaten away at it, the way termites can make a meal of your backyard deck.
Billy Gillispie’s reputation as a tireless recruiter collapsed under a not-so-glistening array of commitments by the K.C. Ross-Millers and Dakota Eutons of the world. Give Gillispie credit for re-recruiting Patrick Patterson, who was ready to sign for Smith. And then thank him for moving on.
He made way for John Calipari, who had Kentucky fans deliriously happy when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins followed him to Lexington. The Big Blue Nation reveled in the fact that UK basketball was relevant again.
Great talent means more victories, Top 10 rankings, prime-time television appearances and a return to the conversation when talking heads are, well, talking – about the top teams in college basketball. For the prior four seasons, UK basketball hadn’t even been in the conversation. Now, once again, the Cats were all but dominating it.
Fans tried not to think about the fact that Wall and Cousins would be here less than a calendar year; and even if they DID leave, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton were the inside/outside combination of the immediate future. Combine them with the next crop of high-level recruits Calipari had corralled, and the surely the Wildcats wouldn’t miss a beat.
That plan took a direct hit on June 24, 2010, when NBA Commissioner David Stern, on draft night, stepped to the podium five different times and intoned the name of a now ex-Wildcat. That was also the night Calipari announced to a national audience that he considered putting players in the league just as important, if not more so, than winning national championships.
Big Blue fans discussed and debated his remark; Calipari clarified it but never backed away. And then it was forgotten as the minutes to Madness began to count down again. A new Kentucky basketball season always seems to blossom the way you see a flower come to life in time-lapse videography – first there’s nothing but dirt, and then suddenly, it’s right there in front of you.
It was happening again: Victories, headlines, a top five ranking. But thanks to the Enes Kanter saga and a failure by some of the UK reserves to develop, the Wildcats have spent the season trying to win primarily by leaning on three freshmen who might be playing THEIR one and only season in the bluegrass - which has Kentucky fans re-considering their wishful thinking of six years ago.
Calipari is doing precisely what the UK faithful had demanded of Smith and Gillispie. He’s bringing in the best recruits he can find. And, unlike Smith and Gillispie, he’s involved with the very top high school players in the country, with little or no regard for the number of seasons they’ll spend in blue and white. And now message board posters and talk show callers want him to change his modus operandi.
They want Calipari either to recruit players who will commit to staying for more than a year or two; or they want him to essentially re-recruit them during that first season, and talk them into sticking around for at least another season.
In the meantime, other “fans” have suggested that Eloy Vargas, John Hood and Stacy Poole, who have struggled to compete this season, should surrender their scholarships and move along, presumably so Calipari can replace them with more of the highly-touted players.
So to sum up: Calipari needs to recruit guys who aren’t quite good enough to be first-round picks, ensuring that they’ll stick around for more than one season. But of course, they have to be talented enough to help defeat teams that do have a potential first-rounder or two.
And if Calipari does manage to sign someone who might end up in the lottery, the UK coach should convince him that the jubilation Calipari showed last summer with the five first-rounders was misspent, and that the kid should set aside any notion of becoming financially set for life and return for his sophomore season.
At the same time, the coach should become comfortable with the reprehensible practice of “running off” players after he realizes they might not be as good as the guys who are ready for the NBA.
Some have offered as a possible solution a new philosophy of compromise: Take only one sure-fire NBA prospect, and surround him with “lesser” talents who might stick for three or four years. It sounds feasible, but the future first-rounder must have a dynamite freshman year while the other newbies play through the shortage of ability that kept them off the high school all-stars list, the one adorned with the Golden Arches.
And if that IS the way to go, ask yourself this question: Which members of the recruiting class of ’09 would you have turned away? John Wall? Not on your life. Cousins? As imposing a low-post presence as Kentucky has had in the last 15 years? Come on.
You could choose Bledsoe or Orton, but that would presume knowing ahead of time they were bound for the draft after one just season – and NOBODY saw that coming.
Recruiting will always be an inexact science. Imagine the hype that might have surrounded Richard “The Master Blaster” Madison, had he come up during the age of the internet, which coincided with the rise of ESPN and dozens of recruiting services.
Madison was an incredible specimen, skilled at three sports. Besides basketball, he was an accomplished quarterback as well as a pitcher capable of reaching 92 miles-per-hour with his fastball. UK fans would have scorched their keyboards and cell phones chattering about his future.
And yet, Madison never became more than a complementary player for the Cats and barely got a sniff from the NBA. But had he signed to play college ball today, he might have been a first-rounder, drafted by a struggling general manager who hoped he could turn into something. Because it’s no longer about whether a player is ready – it’s about whether an NBA team is ready, to invest in his future.
Calipari might seem to be more interested in landing recruits than winning championships, but don’t bet on it. He knows you can’t do one without the other. You have to have the right combination, which is something that has to shake out on its own. It’s not the same as putting together a fantasy team. Billy Donovan did that at Florida with little success. He won back-to-back NCAA titles with a recruiting class that barely drew a shrug nationally the day he signed it.
Had Enes Kanter been ruled eligible, it says here, the Wildcats likely would be looking at half as many losses and a much higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, they probably would have had him for just one season.
Kanter was supposed to be one of three or four possible one-and-doners, which would have left UK fans twitching anew. But nobody is going to turn away a recruit like that.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games and periodically anchors basketball coverage on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)