The announcement that Kentucky's Harrison twins are returning for their sophomore season caught my eye for two reasons. First, six rotation players have declared their intention to return to Kentucky next year. Besides the twins, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress will be back. "Only" Julius Randle and James Young will enter the 2014 NBA Draft. So what happen to the mecca of one-and-done?
Second, Kentucky will be one of the early favorites to win it all in 2015 for what would be their ninth NCAA Championship. That's two short of UCLA's 11. And they smell blood! I've known more than one Kentucky fan who already thinks they have the record! Here's Chris Dufresne during the last Final Four. We play these guys this coming December in Chicago. Prepare to be nauseated by all the subtext the mainstream media will be slinging around.
In addition to these returning players, Calipari managed to pull in the number two-rated class according to Scout. They've got four McDonald's All-Americans: Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Karl Towns. Oy!
I give Calipari credit. I know many of you can't, but maybe you can get behind this: he recruits athletic players who rebound and play defense. Does UCLA?
Saint John of Calipari (I refuse to use the ethnic slur that might fit here) is actually out hawking a book right now. He's advocating reform-increasing the draft entry age to 20. Let me give you my quick take on his system.
Calipari uses something called a "dribble drive motion offense". Compared to the Alford motion offense, Calipari relies more on the point guard to penetrate and kick the ball out if he's blocked from the basket. He's adapted to the players he has. Over the years, he's come to use the three point shot more-you saw it in this Final Four, Andrew Harrison lit it up when it counted most. Calipari also had a back-to-the basket big in Julius Randle, and the ball got dumped down low more than you would usually see from a Kentucky team.
On defense, Calipari takes advantage of Kentucky's length and athleticism. Kenpom rated Kentucky 11th overall. Calipari doesn't press, and Kentucky was criticized for lack of transition defense, but he concentrates on stifling the offense in half court and grabbing every defensive rebound.
Calipari's philosophy, since his days at Memphis, which roughly corresponds to the beginning of one-and-done, is to go after almost every top 25 players east of the Mississippi who is athletic, will play defense, and buy into the system fast. Some of his recruits won't pan out, and the team might not do as well as anticipated every year, but it's a yield game to Calipari. His pitch to recruits: I know you want get into the first round of the draft, and Kentucky is the best place to be for nine months. You will practice against the best, scouts are always at practice, we're on national TV all the time, the fans will adore you, we'll put you up in what will virtually be your own private hotel, and don't worry about the academic side.
Nine months! Think about that. Does UCLA really have the natural advantages that we frequently pontificate on in the current environment? At the very least, they are diminished. The best thing we can do is to build a virtual fence around Los Angeles first and foremost, and around the west coast- a tall order when we have Calipari-lite, Sean Miller in our backyard.
Do we want those same recruits? The short answer-yes, some of them, if they are from the West and of high integrity. Certainly, we can debate that point. We have to ask ourselves, what does UCLA want to be, and is high achievement in the two major sports, basketball and football part of the overall mission statement? Historically, at UCLA and other places, like Duke, I think you have to admit that basketball is or was an impressive ambassador for these schools worldwide.
In this now ancient and antiquated post, I put forth a recruiting strategy. At the time, we were hoping Brad Stevens would come to the rescue. That didn't happen, and we continued to lose our mojo, and further strengthen Arizona in the process.
Although UCLA does "recruit itself," I do believe the coach is the most important factor in recruiting success. As for the recruiting environment and college basketball environment, I've written before that I think changes help UCLA to the extent a longer residence in school makes UCLA more attractive compared to Arizona and Kentucky et al. The change on the horizon that seems to be coming is moving towards "two-and-done." Incremental change is better than nothing, but I have to tell you, Calipari is already adapting.
Will Kentucky catch UCLA? National Championships are hard to come by. How blessed we all are to have a connection to The Coach's program. Personally, I fell in love with UCLA when I was a ten year old in Brooklyn. There will never be another Coach Wooden. Whether you use Calipari's prescription, or that of Krzyzewski, Donovan or Pitino, making it through the regular season, the conference playoffs, and then that little tournament we know as March Madness, it can still seem like a crapshoot in the end.
Alas, my head tells me that Kentucky will get to 11 - at least, and it will happen during the tenure our UCLA's current Athletic Director, Dan Guerrero.
And there's the rub.
Kentucky won its eight championships under five different coaches. Meanwhile, the Bruin Basketball ship has not been righted since UCLA lost in the 2008 Final Four to John Calipari's Memphis team led by the unchecked Derrick Rose. Is the Kentucky college president's job easier than that of the UCLA Chancellor's? Sure. There's a little less going on over there, but I don't understand how you ignore a great tradition like basketball at UCLA. It's never detracted from the other things before. Would they ever ignore football over in Michigan?
Chancellor Block has not publicly shown interest in the basketball program. He turns 66 this year. Should we hope that the next regime gets it?