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Kentucky Basketball

It is Time for Coach Cal to Adjust

December 12, 2018

With the news that Sophomore Quade Green is transferring, it is another ‘spotlight’ on the rather large elephant in the room that not all is right in Camelot.

Some will say it started with the Wisconsin loss in 2015, the derailing of the perfect season has put the program into a downward spiral that it has not recovered from. You can argue that and in a lot of ways it is not wrong. I will say this though, something different and scarier is happening. I think Cal is in danger of the game passing him by.

A program can recover from a loss, a coach can stop stumbling and whip it back on track. I do not think this is the case here. I think Calipari has a bigger problem; a philosophy he has chosen to go with for a decade is no longer working and is putting him in danger of one day ‘dying on that hill’. 

It is tough to blame Cal for it, cause he in fact created the ‘hill’ he could very well die on; recruiting the top 10 players and finding a way to make the top talent share minutes and production for a bigger common goal. 

The secret to that philosophy and undying devotion to it is that you are taking the best players possible and turning them into better teammates and better men, thus increasing their long-term future and value. When you do not get the cream of the crop, you cannot manage it the same way, there is an adjustment to this level of basketball and expectation. There is a learning curve that is different for everyone. This is the part where I think Cal has to adjust. 

Let’s imagine an assembly line for a moment, for an assembly line to work perfectly, the process has to work perfect. When the process is perfect and the items on the assembly line do not need work, it is a thing of beauty and pays back amazing dividends, but when the line gets clogged or backed up or does not have the correct employees working it then it can bottleneck and creates major problems. Cal has a bottleneck on his assembly line and I am not sure he has the right employees to fix it.

Life was easy with the John Walls and Boogie Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl Towns of the world. There was no real adjustment needed to these players. Just put them in a position to win and reap the rewards. Do not get me wrong, there is coaching that was done to help move them along the line to their life dreams. Cal was able to corral Cousins in and turn him into a player that can co-exist with others, for the most part. Cal was able to turn KAT into the top pick by adding another dimension to his game (even if it wasn’t the best thing for UK to win games).

The problem Cal is having now is that he is no longer getting the tip top talent, and has not for some time. He has not gotten a  top-5 recruit since Skal Labissierre in 2015 (coincidentally, or not, Orlando Antigua was on-staff until 2015... just saying). 

The problem with not getting the absolute top talent means your warts get exposed pretty quickly. Game changers like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish hide a lot of flaws, as did Wall/Cousins/KAT/Knight/MKG/Davis. This is not a criticism of Cal and saying he cannot coach, the man clearly can as per his career would prove. Having guys like that hides other players flaws, it hides non-optimal coaching decisions. Game Changing talent truly does just that, it changes the way you coach them and they can carry a team on their back for an entire season on talent alone.

The players Cal is bringing in now are top 25 in talent levels, these are great talents no doubt... but they are not clear one and done players that reside in the top-5 recruits. In fact, due to the learning curve, some are actually 2-3 year players (or god forbid 4), but they are being managed like one and dones. 

There is already a stigma to coming to UK and not being able to make that jump after 1 or 2 years max. At no other program would a Tyler Ulis, or the Harrison Twins, or Isaiah Briscoe left after their sophomore year. These are players that would have been AMAZING junior and senior year players for Kentucky, but they did not stay for at least 2 reasons; 1) the stigma and 2) they were being recruited over.

I think I can prove this with one simple observation of this year’s team. Regarding Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, AND Quade Green this is the truth; “if ______ were to be the clear PG for this team and play 25-30 minutes they would be a much more effective player and the team would be much better overall”. I will die on that hill believing that. The problem is Cal is trying to get them their minutes and sell their ‘spurts’ of excellence to the NBA so they can get drafted.

Again, this is a good strategy for the cream of the crop (as we’ve seen) but it simply does not work when all three are multi-year players. Those three are not Wall and Bledsoe, but Cal is still seemingly approaching it that way.

There is a silver lining to this struggle, however.

Big Blue Nation would prefer to have a system in place where multi-year players help build upon foundations to create continued, expected success. The trade-off was that the revolving door of top players created that foundation of continued expected success, albeit on a more volatile foundation than the former would create.

Unwittingly, Calipari has fallen into a foundation of that system... if he were to decide to embrace that philosophy and turn playing for UK into a ‘survival of the fittest’ instead of ‘everyone eats’ at UK we would see a much different team, in my opinion.

Think back to Cal’s UMass team with Camby, Edgar Padilla, Carmelo Travieso, Donta Bright and Dana Dingle. That team had one sure fire NBA player and 4 really good players that Cal turned into monsters on the court. That team played 6 players almost exclusively.

Think back to Cal’s Memphis team with Derrick Rose... again, one sure fire NBA guy and a bunch of other guys. No starter averaged less than 25 minutes on that team. 

Cal’s absolute best teams (even 2012) were teams that had a short rotation and very very defined roles for the players. That 2012 team played 6 guys, no starter averaged less than 29 minutes per game. Darius Miller averaged 26 minutes and the next closest was Kyle Wiltjer with 11 minutes a game.

Ultimately, I think Calipari needs to adjust one of two ways to get back to being the ‘gold standard’ of college basketball. He either needs to figure out a way to start getting the top kids again and not letting Duke steal his lunch money. The problem with that route is that Cal is no longer the only game in town pursuing those kids and embracing the one and done culture. it also means he would need to make changes to his staff. As I mentioned before, UK has not gotten a top-5 recruit since Orlando Antigua left.

The other option is to embrace what he has going on currently with being able to get the best of the 2nd tier of talent available, but coach them as such. No sharing minutes and trying to create a 10-man rotation, you earn what you get, if that does not work then the player needs to fix it and work harder. Recruiting with an eye to the future that goes well past the upcoming NBA Draft night. 

This would avoid having a Sophomore Quade Green, Freshman Immanuel Quickley, and essentially high school senior Ashton Hagans ‘sharing’ minutes. Before you comment, I am aware Cal says Quade is a 2-guard and I am pitting him with the PGs. The truth is Quade is not a 2-guard and everyone knows it. He is a PG that was trying to be something he’s not to accommodate a bigger roster.

I mentioned Cal’s UMass and Memphis teams for a reason, imagine those teams with more talent? The very thought of that would send shivers down college basketball’s spine. Calipari, the UMass, Memphis Calipari with more talent than he had at either stop, but with the same attitude and me against the world philosophy would get the program back on track to chasing UCLA and having a legitimate title chance annually.

The John Calipari that once said, in 2013, “if you come after one of my players, I come after you twice as hard. If you kill one of mine, I burn your village” has turned into the guy who is now saying  “I think I’m overrated as a recruiter”... “we don’t get every kid; we get the ones we’re supposed to get.”

Big Blue Nation needs Calipari to get back to burning some villages.



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It is Time for Coach Cal to Adjust

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