College Basketball
John Calipari Q&A: It's about getting Kentucky back to the gold standard
College Basketball

John Calipari Q&A: It's about getting Kentucky back to the gold standard

Updated May. 4, 2023 11:42 a.m. ET

John Calipari has already built a Hall of Fame career, his name having been etched in Springfield in 2015. He also understands the nature of being the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. Otherwise, the three-time Naismith College Coach of the Year would not be entering his 15th year at the helm.

That said, Calipari kept it real in a FOX Sports Q&A when assessing his Wildcats, the state of college basketball, and more.

"We have to finish better," Calipari said of his program, which has not reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2019. "The last couple of years, we have not been able to go on that run that we expect to here. For us, it's about the big picture and the gold standard we know we can achieve. I have no intention of being anywhere but the head coach at Kentucky. This is where I want to end my career. I want to leave a few more notches in the belt. I want it to be where it's been."

In the midst of an offseason of re-evaluating, and perhaps some soul-searching, all with the goal of getting back to that championship level, the game plan for the 2023-24 season has a great starting point: Calipari will usher in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, including four of the nation's top-12 prospects according to 247 Sports.


There's 6-foot-7 wing Justin Edwards (Philadelphia), 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw (New Jersey), point guard Robert Dillingham (Atlanta) and Bradshaw's high school teammate, DJ Wagner (New Jersey), not to mention a top-35 recruit in guard Reed Sheppard (Kentucky).

"This class is important and critical to what we are trying to do here at Kentucky," Calipari said. "What makes me love this group is that they were all playing for state championships in high school. They all come from winning and here's another thing: they all like each other. They're in a group text together. Before they get here, they like each other. That's big for where we want to go. By genuinely caring about one another, there's a nice connection in place that feels different."

I talked via phone with Calipari about a wide variety of topics across the sport and within his program. Here's our conversation for FOX Sports: 

There are more than 1,400 players in the transfer portal. NIL deals are making a major impact on the climate across the sport. What, in your opinion, is the state of college basketball right now? 

"Well, it's still strong. But having kids still playing our game that are 25, 26 and 27 years old, where they would be professionals under any other circumstances (COVID added years of eligibility) is tough. Because a lot of guys have stayed around in college for fifth and sixth years, that's also part of the reason why we have a lot of transfers. … As far as NIL goes, there's not enough guidance on it. People are just doing it in their way as a result. We have to get things reeled back in.

"The sport itself? The game is as strong as it's ever been, and TV ratings are as strong as ever. We've got a good group of young people coming in and some quality returning players. But I worry about the sport and the coaches. These issues all fall back on the coaches, and nobody's really taking them on. It means if you are at a mid-major, yes, you may be able to rebuild a program, but somebody can go and do the same thing with your players. 

"As for the kids, we have 1,500 players in the portal, and here's my question: How many are losing the scholarships that they had? We have to get it right for the kids and the sport. I have always been one of the guys who has said ‘fine, go' to kids who want to enter the portal. But educationally, that's where it gets difficult. If you graduate, and you want to transfer, that's fine. But for the kids in their seventh year of school now, come on. It's not healthy for an 18- or 19-year-old to be playing against somebody that old. Some schools are not recruiting freshmen, but only transfers. Power 5 schools are putting only 11 guys on scholarship because 13 or 14 is too many." 

How have these things impacted you and your program? 

"To be honest, not much. We are not changing. We're going to recruit the best players that help us compete for national championships. You know, back in the day, people told me the one-and-done days were ending and all of that was going to end. Everybody said I was wrong for thinking differently. Well, we still have that in place. But make no mistake about it, here at Kentucky, you've got to be built for this. You have to be ready to take on our standard, which is high. Will we supplement for a transfer when need be? Yes, we'll do that.

"The problem for our younger guys is you're going to go against older players, and you're 18 or 19 years old. They're going to be 24 or 25 years of age. I can tell you this: I have never held anyone back in my 15 years of doing this. We've probably had nine or 10 kids transfer. We've had 29 guys who have graduated. And that's just it here: our kids go to class. They understand why they are here, too. If they leave early and are in good academic standing, they can come back and get their degree. You do not come to Kentucky because of NIL. You'll do better here because of what happens when you are a player here. You'll do well in NIL here, but if that's the overriding thing, you're not coming here.

"My father was a baggage carrier at an airport. That's what he did for a living. He worked into his 70s, and now he's 90. People say, ‘holy cow, he's 90!' Yes, that's because he worked his tail off. My mother worked in a cafeteria serving ice cream. My sisters Lea and Terry and I were the first college-educated. My grandfather came to America from Italy and resided in West Virginia, where he worked in coal mines to make a living. Those roots matter to me in how I led these young men."

What do you still want to accomplish? 

"When I think about my journey, here's this kid from Moon Township, Pennsylvania, that has the ability to change lives for families as he competes for national titles. Sometimes we are better than others, and others are better than us, but by the end of the year, we're playing our best basketball. I would like to get De'Aaron Foxes, Malik Monks, and you go down the list of great players we've had. That's why this recruiting class is important to what we're trying to do. What moves me is going into a home, looking at the home, and saying to a family, ‘We can do this if we work together. I'm not promising you anything. This is really hard here at Kentucky. If you're built for this it's really rewarding. My job is to make you uncomfortable. You know, every game that we play is somebody's Super Bowl. Every practice we have, there are scouts here. Do you really want that?'"

How do you view the future? 

"I've got six years on a contract. Will I stay longer? I don't know. But I want to be here. It hasn't changed. The best players still want to come here. I don't blame those who don't want to come here, I don't make it personal. I'm at Kentucky, which is an unbelievable stage. Every year we are here, we have a shot to win a national title. I look at this run and say, 'let's do some special things.' The families, my appreciation for them is they trust me with their child. If it was the drudgery of this, I wouldn't be doing this. …

"You've got to know every arena we go in is sold out. Why? Because they've got a chance to beat Kentucky today. My comment to my team: 'Let's ruin their weekend.'"

What do you see with this recruiting class on the court? 

"Well, for starters, DJ Wagner played as much off the ball as he did on the ball. Robert (Dillingham) played off the ball last summer. I actually got mad because I didn't think Justin (Edwards) was playing enough in AAU. But you know who was the least mad among the people in Justin's circle? JUSTIN! By the end of the summer, he was the No. 1 player on the team and in the gym. 

"The wild thing about this class is this: You know who people are saying could have the most upside? The 7-footer, Aaron (Bradshaw). Aaron has gotten so much better, and he's grown up more than I can tell you in the last year. But all these kids are that way with their upside and talent. That's why I'm excited. They understand what it means to be a great teammate. But more than anything they're gym rats. If you look at some of my best players — Tyler Herro or Brandon Knight come to mind — they were always in the gym working. Brandon would head to the gym, then go and study for his chemistry test. And he was doing that with a month left in school."

There are outsiders who have expressed concern about Robert and DJ being on the same team and the fact that there's only one basketball. What do you make of that? 

"Well, that's been my whole career. We're all about dribble-drive and having different guys who can do it. The last couple of years, we have not had the exact personnel to play that way. People said it about Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose and Antonio Anderson. They asked, ‘How are you going to play with John Wall and Eric Bledsoe?' They said the same thing with Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Well, we did it. With my best players, we play that way. We figure it out, and we can only figure that out if that young man wants to play with other good players." 

You brought up Bradshaw's upside. What do you make of his skill set at over 7 feet tall? 

"Get this: he may be the most consistent shooter we have. He's a 4-man and if he's your 5, we can play 5-out unless he wants to run to the post because he can score there. The key for him at the 4 is that you've got to learn how to guard the 4. That's what we are here to help him learn about." 

What do you think of the way your team has played in recent years and the way you'd like to play this year? 

"The last two years, efficiency-wise, we've been in the top 10-15 in the country. But we had to play how we play with who we had. This upcoming year, what we have is a group that is collectively great with the basketball. We can create pace instead of having to run plays. My best teams have been able to do that. The question will be, how many 3s can we knock down? Are we good at shooting 3s? There are teams out there that are trying to shoot over 30 3s per game. We will play like my best dribble-drive teams and the guys who are supposed to shoot will do so."

Do you feel pressure?

"No, not that way. The only pressure I have is what I put on myself. But I've done that every year and have looked at how I'm doing this job. I feel that. Two years ago, we were the fifth overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. This past year, we were pretty bad for a while, and by the end of the year we were a 5- or 6-seed. You have to put yourself in a position to go on a run. There are times when you make the game-winning shot and times where the other team makes it. We've felt both sides of it, but it's about the big picture and to keep giving yourself a shot to go on that surge. We have to play positionless basketball and play a way I'm more comfortable coaching."

There are reports that Oscar Tshiebwe gave you his blessing to build the roster assuming he is off to the pro ranks, but he could come back. What are your thoughts on him? 

"He's been great and we've been great. I told him to go for it. If you want to come back, you can come back, but you've gotta go for it. Don't shortchange yourself. We have stayed in touch. We haven't done much in the portal. We've recruited one kid (while Calipari did not say, that player is reportedly Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, who committed to Kansas Wednesday). Most of that recruiting effort has been my staff. We've got a good group.

Chris Livingston is another guy. I'll do everything I can to help him get to where he's trying to go. He's got to run this down. He's a terrific young person. Physically, he's ready for the NBA." 

How about Cason Wallace and where he projects in the draft? 

"He looks like an NBA guard. I remember going to watch him after his AAU coach told me he was what we wanted, and man, it took me no time to figure out he was the perfect fit for us. I'm happy for him. My hope is that he's in that lottery, but he's another one, I said this about (Tyrese) Maxey and (Immanuel) Quickley, the guys who passed on him will regret passing on him. He has all the intangibles to have success."

You have reportedly spearheaded efforts to make some summer college basketball games come to fruition. What is your vision with that, and what's the latest?

"I've now said this the last few years. We're traveling overseas during the summer to go on tours. We talk about these trips and talk about the academic components. Well, wait, you don't want to travel overseas for that, you did it to play basketball games. Stop with the idea that it's anything other than that. Why don't we do something where we don't have to leave campus? Do it in July or August, let's make it so flexible where you can scrimmage against another team. Let's see if we can make it cost-neutral.

"Let's just say we played Michigan State in Rupp Arena. We would have a sold-out crowd, amazing atmosphere, and we could get that on big-time TV. Why should it be just be the 3-on-3, TBT and summer league during that time of year? Why not throw us in there? You're telling me TV networks wouldn't air that? How about this? Both coaches are mic'd up for the game. You don't think that would go over?

"If you don't want to do it, you don't have to do it. It won't add time in the schedule. We are already here practicing 4-5 hours per week. If I asked my players if they wanted to play a team or practice, what do you think they would say? We all know that they want to play somebody, and it would be more productive, too. A league could go against another league in Atlanta or another city where you play a couple of games in the same city for a weekend and draw some fans. It keeps college basketball in front. I know it won't start this summer, but if it's the summer of 2024, I'll be ecstatic. We can even let assistants coach the games or give the young officials a try on the games. It helps grow our game and that's what I always want."

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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