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Ten Years of Coach Cal
John Calipari’s first 10 years as head coach at the University of Kentucky were jam packed with memories. As Coach Cal embarks on his second decade under a newly signed “lifetime contract,” the Herald-Leader Sports staff voted on and ranked the biggest moments, best players, toughest losses, top recruits and more from the past 10 years and created this 12-part series.
Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of 12 stories ranking the most memorable moments, teams and players of John Calipari’s 10 years as University of Kentucky head coach. Rankings for this story were compiled by UK basketball recruiting writer Ben Roberts. Watch for a new story every day between today and July 27.
The recruiting roller coaster that has wound its way through the John Calipari era of Kentucky basketball has taken fans on quite a ride.
Those who pay close attention to such things have enjoyed more than their fair share of recruiting victories. But, oh, how so many of those losses on the trail have stung Big Blue Nation.
Of course, any list highlighting the biggest recruiting misses of Calipari’s tenure is dependent on extrapolation and guesswork. If one of the players on this list had indeed chosen Kentucky, it’s unknown what kind of ripple effect that could have had. Perhaps prospects that ended up at UK wouldn’t have. Perhaps the overall impact of other Wildcats would’ve drastically changed. It’s impossible to truly know what might have been had any of these recruitments panned out differently.
These weren’t necessarily the most hurtful recruiting losses at the time, though that was certainly one factor in this ranking process. Ultimately, these are the high school recruitments (no grad transfers allowed) that the Wildcats seemed to have a realistic shot to win, and — had they gone in Kentucky’s favor — could have drastically changed the program’s fortunes for the better.
UK was seen as the possible favorite for every player on this list at one time in his recruitment. But, as Calipari often says, Kentucky isn’t for everybody, and he can’t get them all.
1. Andrew Wiggins (class of 2013) — What a circus this was. Wiggins was — by everyone’s estimation — a transcendent talent, the No. 1 player in the class, and he was playing right down the road at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep. He opened his senior season in front of a jam-packed crowd at Scott County High School and played several games in the state of Kentucky, many of them with Calipari in the stands. Fans, recruiting analysts, and the coaches on his list followed his every move, and — though Wiggins was as tight-lipped as they come — many saw UK as his most likely destination. There were rumors of a “silent commitment” and visions of the Canadian star leading a recruiting class that was already being billed as one of the best ever.
Instead, he chose Kansas, a school that — until the final hours of his recruitment — few saw as a legitimate contender. Though the 2013-14 team he would have played for still made it to the national championship game, those Cats took a roundabout way of getting there, stumbling to a nine-loss regular season and entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed.
Would Wiggins have been the final piece to that puzzle? Would his game — seemingly better suited for Kentucky than Kansas anyway — have made that UK team even better even earlier, resulting in a more productive regular season and possible juggernaut squad for March?
We’ll never know, but it sure would’ve been fun to find out.
2. Jaylen Brown (class of 2015) — Two years after Wiggins, another high-flying talent was at the top of Kentucky’s recruiting radar. Jaylen Brown had Kentucky fans drooling with his video mixtapes and a compelling skill set to back up the highlights. UK and Michigan appeared to be in the best spot during the final stages of Brown’s recruitment, which ended with a surprise commitment to California. The team he would’ve played on lost to Indiana in the round of 32, the earliest NCAA Tournament exit in Calipari’s decade at Kentucky. Brown would have given that squad some additional star power, provided Tyler Ulis with another passing target, and taken some of the load off of Jamal Murray and the rest of the Cats. And his personality likely would’ve made him a fan favorite. In a cycle where UK missed on many of its top targets, this one hurt the most.
3. Xavier Henry (class of 2009) — This recruitment went down more than 10 years ago and might be easy for some UK fans to forget — especially given all the recruiting wins at the time — but a different outcome might’ve created one of the most memorable teams in college basketball history. Henry — the No. 6 recruit in the composite rankings for 2009 — was committed to Calipari at Memphis before the coach took the UK job. Instead of following him to Lexington, the son of two former Kansas basketball players chose the Jayhawks.
The UK team that Henry would’ve been a part of won the hearts of Wildcats’ fans and lost just three games. In those three losses, Kentucky shot 9-for-66 from three-point range, going 4-for-32 from deep in that abysmal Elite Eight defeat to West Virginia. Henry, billed as one of the top shooting guards in his class, was 41.8 percent on threes in his lone college season.
4. Shabazz Muhammad (class of 2012) — The co-No. 1 player in his class (along with Nerlens Noel) didn’t turn out to be quite as good as advertised, but he was the biggest miss in the recruiting cycle that preceded UK’s dreadful NIT season. Had Muhammad picked the Cats, there would’ve been less pressure on other newcomers like Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. The offense wouldn’t have been as dependent on Goodwin and Ryan Harrow, and, who knows, perhaps Noel wouldn’t have been forced to try and make the play that resulted in a freak injury, ending his college career and, for all practical purposes, Kentucky’s season.
5. Mohamed Bamba (class of 2017) — The 2017-18 Wildcats lost 10 regular-season games — tying the NIT squad for most in the Cal era — and still had an open path in the NCAA Tournament at the end. Rim-protection and rebounding were a problem — the dutiful PJ Washington was the closest thing to a ‘5’ man as Nick Richards’ struggles worsened down the stretch — and Bamba averaged 10.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game in his only season at Texas.
6. James Wiseman (class of 2019) — Obviously, Wiseman hasn’t played a game yet and it’s still unknown what kind of a college player he’ll be or how he would’ve affected this UK squad. What is known is that Kentucky was the sure-thing favorite for the dynamic 7-footer before his coach and mentor, Penny Hardaway, took the Memphis job and plucked him away from the Cats. The No. 1 recruit could’ve ended Calipari’s skid with top-five prospects and been the (seemingly) missing piece on another Final Four contender. Instead, he’ll play for Calipari’s previous employer and newest archrival on the recruiting trail.
7. Zion Williamson (class of 2018) — The phenom of this past college basketball season could be placed just about anywhere on this list. His talent and impact on the game is undeniable. But he also didn’t seem like as much of a UK possibility as others here during the final stages of his recruitment. Most thought he’d end up at home-state Clemson. That would’ve been a fine alternative for many UK fans. Instead, he chose Duke, adding a layer of shock to the what-if feelings at the time. And then, of course, he helped crush BBN’s collective soul on the opening night of the season and seemingly never left their TV screens over the next several months.
8. Luke Kennard (class of 2015) — This Duke commitment hurt in a different way. Kennard — the sharp-shooting star from Ohio — grew up in a family of UK fans and seemed destined for Lexington after landing an early offer from Calipari. Instead, he chose Duke, delivering a 1-2 punch to the gut of UK fans. Like Brown, he could’ve been a key floor spacer and scorer on that 2015-16 team that lost in the first weekend of NCAA Tournament play. He also stayed two years at Duke, so he likely would’ve given Calipari a potent multi-year talent.
9. Miles Bridges (class of 2016) — One of the most exciting high school players of the past several years, Bridges emerged as a star at nearby Huntington Prep and clearly loved Kentucky’s program. He would’ve thrived on the team that featured freshmen De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo and came up one shot short of the Final Four. He also stayed two years in college and would’ve been an even bigger star on the 2017-18 squad. Instead of taking the spot at UK, he made the decision to go back home and play for Michigan State.
10. Isaiah Stewart (class of 2019) — Last spring, Stewart was already emerging as a frontcourt force and getting recruiting attention from all over the country. He thought he deserved a UK scholarship offer, and some recruiting insiders at the time thought he would’ve joined the Wildcats’ class early if he got one. Instead, he waited. And waited. And when that offer finally came, it was too late.
Stewart, who signed with Washington, told the Herald-Leader this spring that the tardiness of the interest had a major negative effect on UK’s chances. He’s now the No. 2 player in the national composite rankings, and Kentucky is clearly looking for another post player for the 2019-20 season. Perhaps everything will work out for the Cats — Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina will prove to be enough, or a late addition to the frontcourt will occur — but, if not, Stewart could end up deserving a higher spot on this list.
About this series
A vote by the Herald-Leader Sports staff has generated lists of the biggest shots, the top individual performances and the best players of the Calipari era, along with the toughest losses and the biggest disappointments. We also ranked each of Calipari’s 10 teams, re-visited some of his biggest recruiting hits and misses and recalled the most indelible Cal memories of the past decade.
We hope you’ll have as much fun tapping into your Big Blue memories as we did compiling these lists as you read them in the coming days on Kentucky.com and in the Herald-Leader.