No one has taken better advantage of the NBA’s age limit than John Calipari. In his first three years in Lexington, Kentucky’s coach took the brightest stars from America’s high schools, coaxed them into playing defense and putting team ahead of self, and led them to Elite Eight, Final Four, and national championship finishes. If anyone can deal with the so-called one-and-done rule, it’s Calipari.
But eventually, having to recruit a new starting five every season was going to catch up to Cal and his Cats. Any objective soul knew that to be the case. Still, UK fans have sent us plenty of emails whenever we’ve written things like this: “Eventually the coach will land some kids who won’t have the attitude to buy into his team-first philosophy, but he hasn’t yet.”
Now, with its best player out for the year and with a few “uncoachable” players on its team (Calipari’s since reversed field on that), it appears that this day has indeed become someday for Kentucky. Erase the word “eventually.” This season has become the season of chickens coming home to roost in the Bluegrass State. You can bet more than one SEC fan has thought to himself in recent days: “Live by the one-and-doner; Die by the one-and-doner.”
Ah, but Calipari has lived a lot more than he’s died over the past four seasons. Which means there’s no reason to stop going after recruits who most likely won’t last in the college ranks for more than a season. We can all say “we told ya so” to UK fans today. We can correctly state that they’re finally seeing the downside of having to start from scratch every year. But what Wildcat fan would trade the past four years for a more traditional type of program?
For that matter, what fan of any school wouldn’t trade places with Kentucky fans today? If your school could go the one-and-done route for four years and reach an Elite Eight, a Final Four, and win a national championship as a result, wouldn’t that be worth one disappointing season? (Disappointing is a relative term, of course. This year’s Wildcats are still 17-8 with the third-best RPI in the SEC.)
Hey, we’ll admit it… we weren’t fans of the build-it-up-tear-it-down-build-it-up approach when Calipari launched it. We still wonder if UK fans 20 years from now will be able to remember what players were on which of Calipari’s teams. There’s something sad about that.
But Kentucky’s coach has had more success than we ever dreamed possible. He’s hitting .750 and this season isn’t even over yet (though it must feel like it for Cat fans). After that much success, one disappointing year is no reason to chuck the Calipari model. Until the NBA player’s union allows the NBA to raise its age limit, UK should continue to do what UK has been doing. It’s worked more times than not. It just can’t be counted on to work every season.
But what system could be?