INDIANAPOLIS — During John Calipari's first state-of-the-program address at Big Blue Madness 2009, he proclaimed a seemingly outlandish goal. He wanted to make Kentucky basketball so alluring that every prospect across the country would want to play for the Cats.
Craig Victor, a well-regarded power forward in the high school class of 2014, continues to say that Calipari has achieved that goal. He said as much at the National Basketball Player's Association Top 100 Camp in Virginia in June, then repeated himself at the Adidas Invitational here this week. Kentucky, he said, is "America's team." Much as the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees are iconic sporting brands, so is UK basketball.
"That's everybody's dream, you know, to go there and play," Victor said after a game here.
It's Victor's dream, and the Cats reportedly are interested, but not yet to the point of offering a scholarship. UK is taking a wait-and-continue-to-evaluate attitude, which probably explains assistant coach Orlando Antigua's presence at Victor's games here.
When asked what made Kentucky basketball so appealing to prospects, Victor did not mention storied tradition nor rabid fan interest. Nor did he cite Rupp Arena, which Lexington officials hope to re-invent as a shinier showcase of basketball. Nor the $3 million, 6,000-square-foot home locker room upgrade, or Wildcat Coal Lodge.
Ironically, it's the hope of not staying at UK long enough to enjoy all those amenities that appeals to players like Victor. Calipari's track record of placing players in the NBA — often after only one college season — fuels Kentucky's preeminence in the eyes of prospects.
"Yeah. I believe that's what it is," Victor said.
It's not so much UK basketball that attracts players as it is Calipari's track record for producing pro prospects, Victor said.
In four seasons as UK head coach, Calipari has seen 17 of his players drafted by NBA teams. Of those picks, 13 were so-called one-and-done players who needed only one college season of grooming before turning pro.
So, theoretically, Tennessee or some other program would be the ideal college waystation if Calipari were the coach there.
"Wherever Coach Cal is at, I believe he'll have professionals," said Victor, who noted Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans as Calipari players at Memphis. "Man, he produces pros."
That mass production every year should instill a sense of urgency, Victor said. You better feel ready to enter the NBA Draft after your freshman year or you risk getting overwhelmed by the next heralded recruiting class and then the one after that. That seems to be the dilemma Kyle Wiltjer faces in trying to decide to return to UK for his junior season or transfer.
"These guys come out as one-and-done," Victor said. "If you can't get it done in that first year, that next group is coming."
Calipari spoke of this reality when he went to talk to Victor this spring at the player's high school in New Orleans. Victor took the visit as a sign that the UK coach has a real recruiting interest.
"If he wasn't interested, he wouldn't have made that visit," Victor said. "You know what I mean? He said that on the visit. He said Kentucky isn't for everyone. Which I understand."
Victor, a 6-foot-8 forward, said he was unsure what prevented Kentucky from offering a scholarship. He questioned the level of competition in New Orleans, saying that was a reason he was going to a noted prep school in the Las Vegas area, Findlay Prep. He seeks better competition and a bigger stage to show what he can do.
Meanwhile, Victor has scholarship offers from Louisville, Arizona, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and LSU, which he called "the home team."
Arizona might be the best fit in terms of team need and open position, he said. Louisville has his attention. "They play hard, dirty," he said. "I like everything about them."
When asked to elaborate, Victor defined "dirty" as intense rather than underhanded. "Playing hard," he said. "Diving for every loose ball."
A recruiting competition between U of L's Rick Pitino and Calipari would match the last two national championship coaches. Victor saw other similarities.
"They want the best," he said. "I wouldn't say they're cocky, but they have a reason to be, you know, uppity about themselves."
And, yes, there are differences.
"The difference is Coach Cal gets most of the guys," Victor said. "Coach Pitino works with what he has."