John Calipari isn’t just trying to direct the most talented team he’s ever had to his first NCAA championship. He’s trying to validate a philosophy and approach to building a champion that is distinctly his own – and that has never been successful.
On Saturday, in dismantling a pesky Iowa State team that made repeated runs, Kentucky turned its 87-71 win into a berth into the Sweet 16. It also gets Calipari, yet again, one step closer to using an approach to winning a championship that almost entirely eschews upperclassmen.
“I’ve got a good basketball team,” Calipari said afterward. “You won’t believe this. I’ve got good players, too. But they’re a good team. They’re efficient. They play hard. They are skilled. They’re all skilled.”
Yes, indeed they are, and of course we believe. So much so it’s clear this could be the high-water mark, ever, for the Calipari Way: an approach that relies almost entirely on one-and-done, NBA-bound freshmen; that every season sees both eye-popping-talent turnover and replenishment and that seems to now have neither the patience nor structure to breed three-and four-year veterans who can be put at the centerpiece of a championship run.
Only this time, thanks to luck and powers outside his control, the Calipari Way has been infused with even more firepower than normal.
He has two returning sophomores with NBA potential, and it’s plausible that the NBA lockout from last summer delayed their departure.
Terrence Jones, who had eight points and 11 rebounds Saturday, was a likely lottery pick. Doron Lamb, who had 16 points, was not – he’s projected as an early second rounder if he leaves after this season. But both have NBA dreams, and the lockout from last summer made many collegiate NBA dreamers push the pause button.
Throw in a crop of outstanding freshmen, even by Calipari-recruiting standards, and an inherited senior in Darius Miller, who scored 19 points Saturday and was the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, and you have the most talented Cal team ever.
This is the stars aligning, Caliapri style, which is why the Wildcats are the No. 1 seed in this tournament and marvels of basketball power – a fact they flexed against Iowa State every time the Cyclones, led by a guy in Royce White who turned down a chance to play for the Wildcats, made a run.
After repeatedly sticking around, and 13:49 left in the game, Iowa State cut the lead to four. The momentum seemed to change. Youth seemed to wobble. A No. 1 seed seemed in trouble.
Cue the talent.
A little over three minutes later, the lead was 18.
“Again, with this team, everybody they put in the game gives them a lift,” said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
The fact is that Kentucky has the most talented young college basketball team ever assembled outside of the Fab Five.
Which brings us back to the fact this has never before worked.
The Fab Five did not start out as a team of starters, because that just didn’t happen with freshmen. Not then. But when Michigan figured out what it had and made them the team, college basketball itself was changed. Chris Weber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson reshaped the very image of college basketball. They turned youth into power, experience into an afterthought.
They made two national championship games.
And they failed, both times, to bring home the top prize.
Youth did eventually kick in. Veteran-led teams – at UNC with guys like Eric Montross and George Lynch – kicked in. Penultimate talent came up short in the face of age and experience.
Those same things kicked in at times Saturday against Kentucky. Don’t let the final score fool you. Iowa State, a very good team that is not in Kentucky’s league, repeatedly chipped away and threatened to make a game of it. You can get away with that with against pretty good Big 12 team. You may not be able to get away with it against a team like North Carolina, Michigan State, Kansas (a fact Calipari should know all too well, given his young 2008 team’s youthful choke-job against KU) or any of the other power teams with seasoned seniors and juniors leading the way.
The story since the Fab Five did everything but win it all is of championship team led almost entirely by upperclassmen winning the whole thing.
The only exceptions aren’t really exceptions at all. Syracuse won in 2003 with freshman Carmelo Anthony leading the way, and that team was young. But it had returning sophomores and senior Kueth Duany.
Florida won it all in 2006 with a stable of NBA-bound sophomores, but what made them distinctly different than Calipari’s various squads is they did not bolt sooner. They were NBA-bound sophomores, not NBA-bound freshmen, a fact they reinforced by winning it again the following year as juniors.
Calipari does not operate a philosophy or a program that breeds seniors because he has mastered the art of recruiting so completely he does not need to, and as that has become more true so has his reliance on the very young, talented and inexperienced.
He recruits the best, and therefore his program breeds NBA players and players who leave for the NBA at a pace matched by no one else.
Miller, the senior, is a product of inheritance rather than design, and Terrence Jones is likely a product of last summer’s NBA lockout, not a philosophy at Kentucky that encourages guys to stick around despite the siren song of the pros.
So the time is now. The Calipari Way has never won a championship. It did not happen with Derrick Rose’s Memphis group despite some upper classmen like Chris Douglas-Robertson accompanying him, or Chris Webber’s Michigan squad despite the ridiculousness of that group’s potential.
If it is going to happen – if you really can win it all depending almost entirely on guys just a year removed from their high school proms – then it needs to happen now.
This is the most talented Cal team ever assembled. It has a senior leader and Sixth-Man-of-the-Year award winner in Miller, it has Jones for an extra year, it has Player-of-the-Year candidate Anthony Davis and it has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
If Calipari’s huge victories on National Signing day will ever translate to a coronation in April, this will be the year.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.