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Earlier this preseason, during a roundtable discussion with local reporters, John Calipari took a question about one topic and delivered a lengthy answer about something else entirely.
That’s not atypical for the Kentucky basketball coach, who often turns his press conference responses to unrelated, bigger-picture subjects that happen to be on his mind at the time.
That day’s answer revolved around recruiting. More specifically, Calipari spoke — for several uninterrupted minutes — about the importance and challenge of finding the recruits that are the right fit for Kentucky.
According to Calipari, that means weeding out the prospects who simply want the prestige of a UK scholarship offer but aren’t willing to put in the work and sacrifice to be a part of the “culture” that he envisions in his program.
Identifying the players that want to be at UK — and embrace the challenge of all that entails — is paramount in their evaluation process.
“I try to tell our staff, ‘We can’t be recruited. We’re supposed to be recruiting.’ Which means you got to get the information,” Calipari said. “Do they need us to be a hat on the table? And you’re spending my time and money — well, the school’s money — for me to travel to see a kid who wants us to be a hat on the table? If a kid doesn’t want this culture, it comes down to three schools. (School No. 1 is) promising him a starting position: ‘I don’t care who’s in the program, you’ll start over him.’ (School No. 2) is doing the same. And I’m saying, ‘This is a culture. I can’t promise you that.’
“We started 35 freshmen. Thirty-five. In the history of our game, no one has ever done that in a 10-year period. Ready? A 40-year period. Started 35 freshmen. So if you want it, you come here and take it. I can’t promise you it. If you’re as good as you say, why do you need to be promised?”
Finding the right recruits
The challenge of evaluating recruits’ (and their parents’) intentions and desires — the challenge of avoiding becoming “a hat on the table” — largely falls to Kenny Payne, Tony Barbee and Joel Justus, the program’s assistant coaches and, in most cases, chief recruiters. Calipari is an involved and integral part in the recruitment of every Kentucky target, but it’s the assistant coaches who usually start the process with introductory meetings and early evaluations.
“You just have to do your due diligence in the recruiting cycle,” Barbee said. “You try to develop relationships early, so you can get some honest feedback. Just like we’re honest with the families and the recruits, hopefully they’re honest with us, too, and there’s sincere interest. Because we’ve made it known that — when we’re interested in you — we’re coming after you.”
Calipari has put an emphasis on forming earlier relationships with recruits and their families in recent years, getting to know those players — and allowing those players to get to know UK’s program — at an earlier age.
That approach has paid off with commitments. Barbee has been recruiting 2020 star Terrence Clarke — a top-five national prospect and current UK commitment — since his eighth-grade year, for instance. Justus has also been lauded for his ability to form meaningful relationships with recruits and their families early in the process.
As a result of those early relationships, UK’s coaches get to see more of a potential recruit’s transformation, on and off the basketball court.
“We, as assistants — and even as the head coach — you’ve got to really get to know the situation,” Justus said. “Some families have a tighter-knit circle. Others, maybe there’s a couple more folks that are involved because they want different folks’ input. I think with an early evaluation, you’re just starting to get a vibe. You’re starting to see, ‘How much do they improve over a certain amount of time?’ But each recruitment is different.”
UK success stories
Current UK players like Immanuel Quickley and Dontaie Allen have spoken in the past about their first encounter with Kentucky’s coaching staff — in both of those cases, it was Justus — and how they were told what they needed to work on to continue their trajectory as a possible UK recruit. In both of those cases, they showed marked improvement in the areas Justus mentioned, and, obviously, ultimately landed scholarship offers and committed to the Cats.
Justus said Thursday that his input in such situations isn’t meant to be a test, per se, to see if the players would follow through on those critiques. But it’s no doubt a good indication of a young player’s work ethic and seriousness about a possible future at Kentucky.
And Justus added that this coaching staff’s collective experience with Calipari — he and Barbee, a former Memphis assistant under Cal, have been at UK since 2014, and Payne has been with the Cats since 2010 — allow them to share relevant success stories of former UK players now in the NBA with prospective recruits and their families.
“When you’re developing a relationship with people, you have to be honest,” Justus said. “So if they’re asking for an evaluation of their talent or their game, I think that we all are honest with people, whether it’s the young man, whether it’s the coach, whether it’s the parents.
“I think, also, people know that we have been successful with young people. ‘OK, if I want to be a part of Kentucky, what do you think it is that I need to do better?’ I think we can speak to that. ‘OK, this is what the guys that have done well for us have done here. This is what we have seen in them at this time in their life. This is where they were when they were your age. This is what they did to get better.’”
This process of recruiting — especially early on — goes beyond coaching and evaluating a player’s talent. To avoid ultimately becoming a “hat on the table” or spending valuable time and effort recruiting the wrong kind of player, UK’s coaches must also be part psychologist and part soothsayer.
“I think our biggest thing — and our role — is to get out there and find the information,” Justus said. “Find out who is really built for Kentucky. Who is built to be a champion, who’s built to be a guy that wants to work every single day, who wants to be a great teammate. And that comes through time. That comes through information. And I think as far as just being ahead of what might happen.”
All three UK assistant coaches used the word “honest” when describing their approach to the recruiting process. Payne, who has a reputation as one of the best recruiters in college basketball, took that a step further. The discussions have to be honest. The feelings, he said, have to be genuine. And that goes for both sides of the recruitment.
“I think (it’s) building relationships. You guys use the word ‘recruiting.’ I just don’t know what that is,” he said. “The days of recruiting are gone, in my eyes. You have to build relationships and make judgments on the relationships that you’ve built. Personally, I want to be the guy who — if the kid doesn’t come to Kentucky — I want them to be able to have a good enough relationship with me to say, ‘Kenny, talk me through this situation.’ And always know that there’s somebody that cares. … And as you go through and you build these relationships, it becomes obvious who fits what we do, and who doesn’t.”
Payne also says he sees a common trait among the players that ultimately end up with UK. The family atmosphere that Calipari continuously preaches about his program is one that carries over from an earlier age. Figuring out the right fits for Kentucky basketball, oftentimes, mean figuring out where those players are coming from.
“I think it starts with their parents. I think, if you build relationships with their parents first, and you realize, ‘Well, they ain’t gonna fall too far from the tree.’ … I think you start there and you just try to build a genuine relationship,” Payne said. “And you explain to them that it’s not just about Kentucky. It’s about a relationship with Coach Cal, a relationship with our staff, a relationship that you can trust us to get you where you need to go. And, in the meantime, this program is about championships and your dreams. Not just a championship.”