Kentucky Coach John Calipari defended his commitment to academics Monday, two days after the Herald-Leader reported his basketball team's 2.025 grade-point average was the worst among all 20 UK athletics teams and the worst of any UK men's basketball team since the spring semester of 2002.
In his first meeting with the media since the season-ending loss to West Virginia in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, Calipari pointed to his 80 percent graduation rate while the coach at Massachusetts and the fact he graduated 19 of his 23 players at Memphis as proof of his diligence over academics. He also noted he's brought back players who left school without receiving their degree at every program he's coached.
"Obviously it's important," Calipari said of academics. "I'm walking into a home, and I want those young men and those families to know that we're going to be there. If John Wall says he wants to come back, I feel a sense of responsibility to make that happen. A player I recruited at Pitt, Brian Shorter, called me to get him back into Pittsburgh, which he did, and now he's going to be enrolled to finish up at Pitt.
"I don't know if this story was meant to embarrass me, but with my background, I don't think that happens. My job is to make sure there's growth academically, and they're on line to graduate. It's pretty obvious I've done that over my career as a coach."
Calipari did acknowledge, however, he had hoped the players would have had a stronger academic performance during the fall semester.
"They're going to have terms where they don't do well; it just happens," Calipari said. "When you take over a program like I just did, do you understand everything was different? New staff, new players, new system, new style. There was a lot thrown at these young men, especially that first term. I wish they did a little better that first term academically. But let me say this: I am so proud of how they handled the big picture of this."
The Wildcats are losing five players to the NBA Draft, including four freshmen — Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. Calipari also coached a pair of one-and-done lottery picks at Memphis in Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, but the UK coach said none of it is specifically by design.
"We've had some players who through the years just got better," Calipari said. "What I tell them all is you come to this school with the idea that you're going to graduate from here. If you only stay one year because it's your call, I'm OK with that. What I would suggest is finding ways you can come back and finish up, and that's what I've told every player. I'm not recruiting players saying, 'This kid's one year. ... I'm just recruiting good players."
Speaking of recruiting, Calipari said he hopes to add one or two more players to a class that already includes three five-star prospects: point guard Brandon Knight, pivot man Enes Kanter and wing guard Doron Lamb.
UK is reportedly still in the running for Oregon power forward Terrence Jones, who committed to Washington on Friday. Calipari said he didn't receive any national letters-of-intent Monday.
Jones' recruitment has stirred conversation over coaches contacting recruits who have committed to other schools. Calipari said Monday he would only initiate contact with a recruit who had publicly de-committed from a school.
"If he's made a verbal commitment, we just lay off until the kid publicly de-commits, which has happened before," Calipari said. "If he's committed to a school, then I would not (contact the recruit). There's no rule against it, there's no law against it. I just don't do it."
In addition to possibly losing Jones to Washington, Calipari also missed out on North Carolina power forward C.J. Leslie. And while the 2010-11 Cats may not be as deep as this year's team, Calipari still has high expectations.
"We'll be fine," he said. "I've coached where I've played 11 guys, coached where I've played five guys. We were the No. 1 team in the country at UMass and played two guards 39 minutes (a game) and two others 36. I'll coach different ways. It just depends on the team."
And while UK is one of the nation's hottest programs, he knows it won't land every target on its recruiting board.
"You won't believe this, but we'll miss on kids, too," he said. "They'll go to other schools. We're not getting everybody we want. This is a unique situation, too. You want to be on national television, you come here. You don't want that kind of glow, you don't come here. You want to be challenged at the highest level and be on a team with other good players and see how good you can become, you come here. You want to be the only guy on your team who can play, you don't come here."
Calipari said he expects Orton and Bledsoe to remain in the NBA Draft and hire agents, and he said he was uncertain of swingman Darnell Dodson's future with the team.
JV team next season
Also, Calipari announced plans to field a junior-varsity team next season.
UK fielded a JV team in 1996 to showcase a young Nazr Mohammed, but Calipari said he plans to keep the team on a long-term basis.
He said he'll give certain varsity players the option of participating on the JV squad. Calipari said the JV team would play 12 to 13 games against prep schools, junior colleges and state high schools as long it's cleared by the KHSAA.
"This is for the players that really grow up wanting to be here," Calipari said. "I can't promise you that you'd ever play a varsity game. But what a way to get another 12-13 kids from the Commonwealth involved who have always wanted to be in this uniform."
Teaming with Gottfried
Calipari also announced he will be teaming up with former college football coach and TV analyst Mike Gottfried to bring Gottfried's "Team Focus" mentoring program to Lexington.
Team Focus was founded by Gottfried and his wife, Mickey, in 2000 and provides fatherless young men, ages 10 to 18, with life skills and a mentor relationship.