John Clay

Once the king of recruiting, John Calipari’s crown has inevitably slipped

John Calipari: ‘I’m overrated as a recruiter’

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, about recruiting. UK lost out on James Wiseman, the top recruit for the class of 2019, who announced Tuesday he will attend Memphis.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, about recruiting. UK lost out on James Wiseman, the top recruit for the class of 2019, who announced Tuesday he will attend Memphis.

The presence of Penny Hardaway made James Wiseman’s recruitment a special circumstance.

Thing is, John Calipari used to be the special circumstance.

If you missed the news, Wiseman, the 7-foot center rated the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2019, announced his college choice Tuesday. Instead of choosing Calipari and Kentucky, not long ago the favorite for his services, Wiseman will stay home and play at Memphis for Hardaway, his former AAU and high school coach.

That’s the same Hardaway who starred as a player at Memphis and then in the NBA before returning to become his alma mater’s head coach before the start of the season. As far as Wiseman was concerned, Hardaway’s hiring tipped the scales in favor of the Tigers.

It was another tough recruiting loss for Calipari, who had already seen DJ Jeffries, a 6-7 forward out of Olive Branch, Miss., decommit from the Cats and opt for Hardaway and the Tigers instead. And it was another disappointing announcement day for Big Blue Nation, undoubtedly uneasy over the prospective holes they see in next season’s front line.

“We still have some guys there,” Calipari said Tuesday. “It’s funny how it always plays out.”

Forgive Memphis fans for chuckling over how Wiseman’s recruitment turned out. After all, Tigers fans haven’t forgotten that (a) Calipari left Memphis for UK back in 2009 and that (b) he took recruits John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins with him. It must feel good to see their team turn the tables.

Meanwhile, forgive Kentucky fans for wondering what’s going on here. Once the undisputed recruiting king, Calipari seems to have lost his golden touch, losing out last year to the legendary Mike Krzyzewski on a trio of top-shelf recruits and now this year to a newbie in Hardaway, who had never even ran a college practice before last month.

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The cost of last year’s recruiting losses came to bear early. After Kentucky was plastered 114-84 by Duke in the Champions Classic, I posted a “three takeaways” post-mortem online. A Twitter follower quickly responded, “Here are your takes: 1) Cal missed out on R.J. Barrett; (2) Cal missed out on Cam Reddish; 3) Cal missed out on Zion Williamson. That’s all you need to know.”

Indeed, some years there is a wide gap between really good prospects and elite prospects. Who knows, by March we might be all whistling a different tune. Right now, however, Duke appears head and shoulders above Kentucky, if not the rest of college basketball.

To be sure, Calipari is a victim of his own success. You just don’t stack No. 1 class on top of No. 1 class on top of No. 1 class the way Cal did after arriving in Lexington. If you were recruiting a kid and you found out Calipari was recruiting that same kid, sorry for your luck. You were the victim of circumstance. Sooner or later, however, the law of averages catches up with every coach.

“I’ve said it all along, I think I’m overrated as a recruiter,” Calipari said Tuesday. “We’ve had kids make the decision to come here and it has played out well for almost all of them.”

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Still, with the early signing period coming to a close, you’d have to think Calipari will take a hard look at his program’s approach. Everything changes, after all. The message that worked yesterday is no guarantee to work tomorrow. Other schools are out there trying to recruit good players, too, you know.

“Maybe (recruits) do want to hear it’s going to be easier,” said Calipari, whose mantra includes UK is not for everybody. “But I come back to the same thing, I’ve got to be able to sleep at night knowing that I’m being honest, that I’m not embellishing, (that I’m saying) ‘Here’s what it is.’”

Here’s what it is right now: Kentucky basketball recruiting has taken an inevitable dip.

That, too, can change, however. The “overrated” recruiter might be down, but I wouldn’t count him out.

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