In an hourlong interview last month with the Herald-Leader and a handful of other local media outlets, John Calipari was discussing team chemistry when he pivoted the conversation toward recruiting.
Two days before he was set to hit the road for the fall recruiting period — “a grueling six, seven days,” he called it — Calipari spoke of the challenges of trying to put together what is basically a new team every season, and the benefits of being at UK when attempting such a thing.
“We’ve been fortunate,” he said. “Being at Kentucky, it’s a different deal.”
Calipari — already known as a master recruiter before he arrived in Lexington — got the ball rolling with his first class of Wildcats in 2009, a group that included John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.
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The class that turned around the program — and the coach who put it together — also turned UK into something not really seen elsewhere in college basketball. Lexington became the destination for many of the top high school prospects in the country, and a scholarship offer from the Wildcats became a badge of honor among five-star recruits.
That last part has its advantages: It’s a program that, on some level, sells itself. And it has disadvantages: being in the position of figuring out which recruits truly want to be at UK, and which ones just want to be able to say Calipari wants them there.
“There are kids that act like, ‘Kentucky was one of the schools, and I decided (on somewhere else).’ And I haven’t talked to the kid in two months,” Calipari said. “I’ve had kids call me, ‘Coach, why haven’t you talked to me?’ Duhhh. Why haven’t I talked to you? You know where you’re going to school. You just want us involved.
“So go where you’re going.”
UK does not yet have any commitments for the class of 2017.
Calipari recalled a recent story of a top high school player who texted to ask whether it would be OK to list the Wildcats among his final five schools. The reason the player asked permission, Calipari said, is that UK’s coaches hadn’t talked to him in months.
“And he didn’t want to put it out there and then have us come out and say we’re not (recruiting him),” he said. “He didn’t want to be embarrassed. I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re fine.’ I’m not going to hurt these kids, but the reality of it is, we’re not recruiting every kid out there.”
Calipari has made it clear with this class that he’s not wasting his time with recruits — no matter what their ranking is — if he doesn’t think there’s a good chance they will end up at Kentucky.
To a certain extent, he has always done that. Calipari has passed on big-name recruits in the past for various reasons, including team chemistry concerns and academic problems.
He also has been burned by some recent recruits who seemingly played UK for scholarship offers only to shun them for other schools, in some cases leaving the impression that the Wildcats were never really among their top options.
I’ve had kids call me, ‘Coach, why haven’t you talked to me?’ Duhhh. Why haven’t I talked to you? You know where you’re going to school. You just want us involved.
John Calipari, UK basketball coach
Calipari is taking no chances with this class.
It became clear during the summer that UK was no longer recruiting Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr. — two of the top 15 prospects in the 2017 class and two of the earliest players from that group to earn UK scholarship offers.
Both players continued to list UK and talk about a potential Big Blue Madness visit long after Calipari ceased contact. The thinking was that neither player was likely to end up with the Wildcats.
DeAndre Ayton — the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2017 class — openly lobbied for more attention from Kentucky before ultimately committing to Arizona in a surprise announcement last month.
Six other five-star prospects in the class of 2017 — Brian Bowen, Trevon Duval, Billy Preston, Mitchell Robinson, Paul Scruggs and Kris Wilkes — either continued to list UK among their top choices or publicly acknowledged that they would like offers from the Wildcats, despite little to no interest on UK’s end.
So, in a class that will need to yield five, six, maybe seven UK commitments, Calipari has focused all of his attention on a group of 10 recruits he thinks would fit well in his system and who want to be a part of it.
Class of 2017: The latest rankings, info and video featuring Calipari’s top targets
Those prospects — Mohamed Bamba, Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Kevin Knox, John Petty, Nick Richards, Lonnie Walker, PJ Washington, Tremont Waters and Trae Young — are, in some cases, not ranked nearly as high as others Calipari has ignored.
Narrowing his recruiting pool to such a relatively small number is somewhat of a risk for Calipari, who can’t afford to miss on many of these players but is probably the target of more negative recruiting by opposing coaches than anyone in college basketball.
Top-10 recruits — including Bamba, Knox and Diallo — are told that their stats will suffer if they go to Kentucky, while other schools can offer them a starring role. Calipari suggested that such recruits look at former UK players Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis, who both sacrificed individually while at UK but ended up as No. 1 draft picks.
Four-star players — including Petty and Waters — are told they’re not among the Cats’ top priorities by other schools that claim to have them No. 1 on their own recruiting boards.
Countering that strategy leads to what Calipari calls the “grueling” part of the fall period. If he hasn’t visited a player in the first few days of a recruiting period, he knows other coaches pursuing that player will say UK doesn’t see him as a top priority.
In the first week of this one, he visited all 10 of the players he’s targeting — going as far west as Las Vegas and as far east as Connecticut.
Petty, the lowest-ranked player on Calipari’s wish list, was the first to receive two visits from the UK coach, disproving the popular summer narrative that he was a backup plan for the Wildcats.
Once he was on the recruiting trail, Calipari seemed to be having fun. His second meeting with Petty took place in an Alabama chicken joint, his first visit with Walker happened in a Pennsylvania barber shop, and both produced social media pictures of a smiling UK coach.
Before he hit the road, Calipari made it clear that he likes his latest team, which will be on the Rupp Arena floor for the first time in a couple of weeks at Big Blue Madness.
Also in Rupp that night will be many of the recruits he has spent the past few months carefully selecting to, he hopes, take over for the current Cats a year from now.
“I leave this week, and it’s going to be a grueling six, seven days,” Calipari said on Sept. 7. “But after that seven days, we’ll have a good idea of where we are.”
Fast-forward four weeks, and the Cats look to be in pretty good shape.