Next Cats Summer Recruiting Guide | John Clay: Recruiting has changed the game at Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 16, 2013 

Kentucky basketball fans, you know how spoiled you are, right?

You know it’s not really supposed to be this way.

You know that no school is supposed to have five No. 1 signing classes in a row, right?

You know that just doesn’t happen.

With John Calipari as the Kentucky coach it has happened, however. It has happened because of one single reason: The Kentucky basketball coach has made recruiting the most important part of his program.

Back in the 1990s, when Rick Pitino was the Kentucky coach, style of play was the most important part of the program. Pitino employed a style fitting his up-tempo, aggressive personality.

The Cats pressed. The Cats ran. On defense, the Cats lived off charted deflections. On offense, the Cats shot so many three-pointers Pitino’s first team was nicknamed “Pitino’s Bombinos.”

Recruiting was important. The biggest moment of the Pitino rebuilding project was when the young coach signed a player out of New York named Jamal Mashburn.

Recruiting wasn’t the focus, however. Style of play received the credit for the Cats’ success, a Final Four in 1993, a national title in 1996, an NCAA runner-up finish in 1997.

Style of play remained the focus with Pitino’s successor, Tubby Smith, but in the opposite manner. Big Blue Nation became convinced Smith preferred a slower, less entertaining style that emphasized defense.

Recruiting was a Smith-era hot topic, no doubt. Much of that had to do with disappointment, however.

The highly regarded tandem of Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans, two early Smith recruits plucked off the momentum of the team’s 1998 national title, never made it to a Final Four.

Later, Smith assembled a class that included Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford, Rajon Rondo and Ramel Bradley, only to fall short of the goal. The way the players played, not so much the players themselves, was considered the problem.

When Billy Gillispie followed Smith, the emphasis switched from how the players played to how the players were treated. Billy G. was a coach out of the Bob Knight school who talked toughness and physicality.

His recruiting lended more toward puzzlement. Gillispie offered scholarships to players who ultimately ended up at schools of lesser stature. He loved large rosters that included multiple walk-ons.

If Kentucky had won, this might have been all fine and good. Kentucky didn’t win. Not nearly enough, anyway. That and the combination of Gillispie’s prickly personality walked the head coach through the out door.

Through the in door walked Calipari with a single focus. His would be a players-first program.

Style of play didn’t matter as much as the players who played it. An offensive philosophy didn’t matter as much as the players who defended. A defensive strategy didn’t matter as much as the players who scored.

How many times through Calipari’s four seasons as the UK coach have we heard him say early in the year, “I’m still trying to figure out the best way for us to play.”

A perfect storm has resulted. Calipari was always a great recruiter. He did it at UMass, a school few knew about when it reached the 1996 Final Four. He did it at Memphis, even though the Tigers played in a fringe conference out of the national spotlight.

At Kentucky, Calipari has the history, the tradition, the resources, the funds to take recruiting to the next level and he’s done just that.

Yet even longtime Calipari watchers have to be amazed at how the coach has collected No. 1 classes year after year, from John Wall and De-Marcus Cousins, to Brandon Knight, to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to Nerlens Noel, now to the Harrison twins and Julius Randle as part of what is being heralded as possibly the greatest freshman class in history.

It’s not supposed to happen that way, year after year.

At Kentucky, under John Calipari, it has been just that way.

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