The secret to John Calipari's recruiting magic lies within 5 simple words: "Go Big Or Go Home." And, interestingly enough, Calipari has been living in Lexington, KY the past four years, miles away from his home town of Pittsburgh.
Coach Cal has been dominating the recruiting circuit for years, but it was not until he donned the Kentucky blue tie that he consistently recruited multiple top players every season.
The John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe class was an exhilarating way to start his tenure in Lexington. But, that team had holes in the offense, like poor perimeter shooting, that West Virginia dissected in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats lost earlier than expected, but an Elite Eight appearance for a team that missed the tournament the year before had Big Blue Nation buzzing about the future.
Cal did not fold under the pressure, going back into his bag of tricks -- it is taking every ounce of restraint right now for me not to crack a recruiting violation joke here -- and presented Big Blue Nation with another great class.
The group of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb was less flashy, but the departure of last year's superb class gave more playing time to the upperclassmen, making this team even better than Cal's first one. They lost in the Final Four to eventual national champions Connecticut. The next step in the process was the national championship, and with the class coming in the next season, it was an extremely realistic goal.
The 2011-12 class consisted of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer. This crew, along with senior Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, was a wrecking ball on its way to win the national championship.
When a team wins the national championship, it usually results in the squad being gutted. That's exactly what transpired, as six UK players went to the NBA. That left Kyle Wiltjer as the only player on the roster who got significant playing time, and he never even started a game for the Wildcats.
In 2012-13, Lexington welcomed Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Excitement was brewing once again in Big Blue Nation, but I'm not sure if any educated Kentucky fans expected a repeat.
This team was young just like the other contenders, but the difference was that every other Kentucky team Calipari coached had multiple upperclassmen who made major impacts on games. Wiltjer is a good player, but his expertise is at the three point line. He is unable to create his own shot on command and is a major liability on defense, whether it is on the perimeter or in the post.
This meant that the scoring responsibilities would be left on inexperienced freshmen. For some Kentucky teams, that was not a problem, but for this one, it was. The Wildcats lacked an elite point guard that past Calipari teams had who could conduct the dribble-drive offense. They also lacked an elite perimeter defender, like Michael Kidd-Glichrist, who could cover a team's best non-post scorer, taking defensive pressure off of the bigs in the post.
Of course, losing Nerlens Noel in February did not help the squad, either. But what hurt this team the most was a lack of leadership and chemistry. Every Calipari team has players who are just biding their time until they can play with the big boys. What makes Calipari such a special coach is that he can get players to buy into his system and have one-and-done players come together for a season to achieve a common goal.
But, for some reason, he could not work his magic on the 2012-13 team.
They cared more about their own stat lines than the outcome of the game, playing selfish one-on-one offense and poor team defense. So, although the 2012-13 rendition had the same freshman firepower, they were doomed from the beginning because they lacked returning upperclassmen, an elite point guard, and solid perimeter defenders. The selfishness and poor chemistry was just the cherry on top of their miserable season.
What can we learn from the last two Kentucky teams when trying to predict the 2013-14 squad's success?
The newest Wildcats recruiting class has been regarded as the best since the "Fab Five" by many experts, but I will wait until I see them play together before I make such a distinction. The class includes Andrew Harrison, the #1 point guard, twin brother Aaron Harrison, the #1 shooting guard, James Young, the #3 small forward, Julius Randle, the #1 power forward, Dakari Johnson, the #2 center, and Marcus Lee, the #9 power forward.
In other words, UK has an entire starting five plus a sixth man just from their freshman class. When you add in Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Kyle Wiltjer into the picture, you have nine players who all deserve a starter's minutes. You know that saying, "you can never have too much of a good thing"? Well, I think this is an example where too much good could cause a great deal of bad.
There are reports that Wiltjer is mulling over the option of transferring, which would be a great idea because he will get seriously limited playing time at UK. With Wiltjer, Poythress, and Lee all playing power forward, someone is going to get the shaft, and my money is on Wiltjer.
But, even if Wiltjer transfers, Cal has eight players for whom he needs to find significant playing time. For players trying to make it to the NBA, it will be tough to maintain team morale if some players, who are having a good season, cannot find the court enough.
The national championship team had seven players in the rotation and Wiltjer, the seventh guy, did not take up much playing time. For a team with so many elite players, depth really is not an option because feelings will be hurt.
Also, this team will need to find a leader. Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb became the leaders of the national championship team, but Poythress and Cauley-Stein do not appear to be leader material. I'm a huge fan of Poythress and feel that he will thrive off of the bench this season, but he possesses more of a lead by example style than a vocal style. The likely choice for leader of this team is Andrew Harrison due to his position and talent. But, only time will tell if someone will step up and become the leader.
Other than the playing time problems and the leadership hole, this team looks like it fills all of the needs to contend for a championship under Calipari's system. They have an elite point guard, solid perimeter and post defenders, and returning upperclassmen.
With that said, I hate to hear fans knighting this team before the season even starts. On paper, no team is beating UK, but that is why they play the game on the court. How well this team comes together will determine how far they go. There is no doubt that the 2013-14 squad will be leaps and bounds above the 2012-13 team, but whether they will be as good as the national champion 2011-12 Wildcats remains to be seen.
Is it November yet?
By: Matt Levine