Calipari must recruit mental toughness, not just ability

UK head coach John Calipari designates who is the focus of his ire during Saturday's game. in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, December, 22, 2012. Photo by James Holt | Staff

By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel

dschuh@kykernel.com

John Calipari is the villain. In the fairy tale version of modern college basketball, he is the nagging antagonist that creeps under everyone’s skin.

It’s not just because he wins. It’s not just because he’s brash. It lies in his philosophy: His rotational recruiting pattern that infuriates the conservative members of the sport’s admirers.

The national perception of the one-and-done philosophy in college basketball is largely negative. It is viewed as a black eye on a sport that most will say has seen a dramatic fall in quality in the last 20 years. Calipari didn’t invent it and says he doesn’t like it. He is simply its most fervent disciple.

His 15 NBA draft picks in three seasons in Lexington are both his greatest talking point and his critics’ strongest judgment.

This season, those critics were in full “I told you so” mode. Even after a national championship, a season ending in an upset loss in the first round of the NIT was proof to some that the one-and-done philosophy is a mockery.

They said last year’s team was once-in-a-generation and Calipari got lucky, that he can’t consistently win with a team comprised primarily of 18-year-old freshmen.

I don’t agree with that — at least, not entirely.

The 2012 National Championship team was great, perhaps one of the greatest in UK history. And with top recruiting classes flocking to Lexington every season, that team can be replicated — it may next season.

There is an inconsistency, though, that lies in the process. Calipari’s methods are risky, but he’s good at what he does. He has all but perfected the system an NBA rule has forced him to utilize. However, he couldn’t avoid what has happened in 2013.

The one-and-done system is cyclical. It can produce fabulously gifted teams capable of steamrolling amateur competition. It can also breed talented, athletic teams mired in their lofty expectations. This year’s team, of course, was the very definition of the latter.

The expectations were reflected by its No. 3 preseason ranking. UK was the reigning national champion, what’s to say it can’t just happen again?

That’s the trap.

Talent can win games. Experience and talent can take it a little further. But it takes something extra, a certain mental toughness that this year’s Cats never acquired. They were met with adversity and, more often than not, couldn’t respond the way anyone expected them to.

And, most importantly, they had nobody to teach them. There was no Darius Miller, no Josh Harrellson and no Patrick Patterson.

These freshmen were talented enough for the standard that has been set at UK the past five years. They never brought the mental fortitude to showcase it. Calipari publicly feared that routinely for five months.

The system is cyclical, but it skips years. The overhaul of five first-round NBA draft picks after the 2012 championship was a difficult thing to replace. These Cats didn’t.

The 2010-11 season began in a similar way. That team entered the season with slightly lowered expectations after Calipari’s first freshman crop at UK fled for their NBA dreams.

But they had upper-classmen leadership and a gritty group of freshmen that fought their way to a Final Four-caliber team by March.

Most UK fans have learned to have patience with Calipari’s teams. And that held true for several months until this team’s inconsistency slowly morphed into its identity.

He said he tried everything to turn the season around, and there’s no reason to believe he didn’t. But when all that doesn’t work, and you’ve got the second-best recruiting class in America, fans (especially at UK) will start pointing fingers.

The bottom line here is how this season can alter Calipari’s philosophy. He’s still going to recruit the best high school players in America. Frankly, he would be wrong not to if he is willing and able. How he evaluates them, however, should change.

After the Cats’ loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, he said he wouldn’t change his approach. “I like that national title,” he said.

But it’s more complex than that. He has to strive for consistency. A national title contender is great, but an NCAA play-in game contender isn’t quite as illustrious.

“We’ve got to be more precise,” he said. “There’s a certain toughness that you’ve got to have in this thing … When you don’t have it — you know.”

It’s just one season, yes, but it can happen again. Just like the title run before it, a season like this can be replicated.

Calipari will recruit smarter. He will coach smarter. He’ll look deeper into his players than their physical attributes. He needs to find mental toughness, not just basketball potential.

The consistency of the one-and-done system depends on this change. In theory, a national championship banner will not come every year. But as we saw this season, a team capable of succeeding in the NCAA Tournament can miss it altogether. The possibility of either scenario is the nature of the cycle.

Calipari will always be a villain to the college basketball world. There’s no going back. But if there’s another trip to the NIT in his future, UK fans could start seeing him that way too.

Will says:

JUST POINT OUT THAT THE TEAM HAD ONLY 8 SCHOLARSHIP PLAYERS… Teams on probation have more then that, he was FORCED to play players that werent learning anything in practice because, HE HAD TO PLAY THEM… they were the only guys there… He has a full deck this year… there are no excuses this year that will be unacceptable. that’s for sure.

Will says:

JUST POINT OUT THAT THE TEAM HAD ONLY 8 SCHOLARSHIP PLAYERS… Teams on probation have more then that, he was FORCED to play players that werent learning anything in practice because, HE HAD TO PLAY THEM… they were the only guys there… He has a full deck this year… there are no excuses this year that will be acceptable. that’s for sure.

Patrick says:

Articles like this never cease to amaze me. Coach Calipari has resurrected Kentucky Basketball like a Phoenix from the ashes. He has made Kentucky relevant again. An Elite 8, a Final Four, and a National Championship in four years, that is not a fluke. It may not be most fans’ idea of what College basketball should be, but times, they are a changin’! Sadly, the NCAA can’t change anything to fix this; that is in the hands of the NBA! I’m not ready for Cal’s head after the NIT debacle this season. These things happen. I contribute this year’s mess to a mistake Cal made by not recruiting a point guard that was up to the standard of Rose, Wall, Knight, or even Teague. No disrespect to Harrow, but what Cal saw in him is a mystery to me. He obviously saw something during all the practice against the NC team that sold Cal on him, but it didn’t materialize on the court. I believe as the point guard goes, so goes the team. CaI has fixed that next season with the Harrison twins. Cal has been up front with the University and the fans by stating he would recruit the very best talent available and that is what he and every D-1 coach does; the difference is Cal signs more than most which equates to turn over. Be critical if you want with Cal, but take a look at the other schools on each of the 5-star’s list. UK isn’t the only school going after the top talent. I think one difference between Coach Cal and other coaches is honesty. If they are ready for the NBA, Cal pushes them in that direction for the player’s (and their family’s) sake.

Brian says:

I’ll take a trophy ever two or three with pleasure if having to suffer through a 20 win season occasionally is all it cost ! I love my CATS and CAL too !!!

bob says:

All you haters get your hate on! UK is the undisputed king and anyone who can’t see that is blind. Kevin from Oregon, you are an idiot. UK fans don’t blame U of L for UK’s not stellar season. We blame a broken system that if it were replaced we’d have won the last 4 in a row. You people haven’t a clue at what trouble one and done causes UK. In spite of that, Cal has made an elite 8 a final four and a championship along with a lousy 21 win season…. Most places beg for 21 wins. Here it is a miserable season. When UK strolls through next season the naysayers will be screaming even louder. I hope they take it from one and done to two and through. If they do, we’ll win 5 championships every 7 years as long as Cal is here. As for calling him a cheater? Really? Who’s coach was caught cheating on the floor of Porcini’s? Hmmmmm…….

Dale Sine says:

I am a UK grad (1976) and a long time UK fan. “One and done” is not a perfect world, but I will take Coach Cal’s record over the past 4 years, as opposed to the previous 12 years, including the 1998 Championship. I loved Tubby as a person, but he was not a great coach. In 1998 he had Pitino’s players who basically ignored his coaching and won the National Title anyway. That is not my opinion, it is the testimony of the players on the team that year. Tubby couldn’t recruit. After Tubby we had to endure 2 years of Billy Gillispie. That was the longest two years of my life. BCG did get some good recruits, but he had no idea of how to coach them. Enter Calipari. Coach Cal turned a few of BCG’s recruits into the players that they could become. In four years Coach Cal has had 2 final four teams, including a National Title. This years team was not pretty, but this was the exception. Next years team will again contend for the National Title. Except for Julius Mays, this years team had no leadership, and Mays was a transfer who was still getting used to being a part of BBN. If I could change anything about the recruiting process, it would be to include (besides the obvious 5 star players) a few recruits who can compete on this level, but will not be ready for the NBA after one year. The biggest problem with this years team was that after Noel went down with his injury, the team had no depth. Polson emerged as the best option as a back-up PG. He played to the best of his ability and was responsible for a couple victories on the season, and the only reason UK had a chance to beat Robert Morris in the NIT. If you look at the rest of the bench, it was filled with players 5’9″ to 6’2″. Jon Hood, a junior, played more minutes than any other year in his career, and did admirable, but the bench was woefully short. If the Cats had some legitimate 6’6″ to 6’8″ players on the bench, they could, with time, develop into leadership types (i.e. Darius Miller, Josh Harrelson). Next years team has back ups in almost every position.

And, for those of you who insist that Cal’s players are not interested in school, look at the facts. John Wall and Brandon Knight were both All SEC all academic team members with 4.0 GPAs. In the last 20 years UK had a player or two who were on the All American Academic team, or All SEC Academic Team. Since Cal has been there, the numbers have increased. In 2011, UK had 5 or 6 players on the All SEC academic team. Poythress from this years team will probably qualify, as may a few others. The last two years, the UK basketball squad tied Vandy (a very respectable academic school) for the lead academically in the SEC. And, I was an AFROTC student at UK and a history major. I went on active duty after graduation, went to pilot training and am now an Airbus 320 Captain at a major airline. My degree had nothing to do with my success, other than I had to have a degree to go into the Air Force. Attending college is all about improving your money making potential. Coach Cal has done everything in his power to increase the earning potential of the players that he recruits. You cannot ask more than that from any coach or educator. I hope he stays are UK for 20 years!

Don says:

Idiot…..how many coaches, how many schools, how many fans would like to have Kentucky’s success the last four years. You must be one of those writers that thrives off bad years of a winning program!
You are an example a writer that gives good journalists a bad rap.

wildcatbbn says:

I love it, every year like watching the NBA. It is really exciting yet frustrating sometimes at the decision making. But man what a ride!!!! Better than watching ten loss Tubby Ball.

Greg Carney says:

I agree Kevin or the refs that have it in for you like Arizona and offer 5k or a free trip to Cancun. I think the real reason the media try to make Cal a villan is to get people to read there terrible journalism skills because it’s easier to get people to read the negative things than the good things. Like the money he raises for charities or the 15 kids he made multi millionaires in 3 years (show me a professor that has made 15 students millionaires in 3 years after they finish college).Cal at least promotes them returning to college when there earning period comes to a end in the NBA why not earn the money while your young and then go back to school when you can’t play sports anymore.That makes good sence to me If your lucky you might make enough money not to have to work for a living . Isn’t that the reason we go to college to make more money . Also the odds are good that what you were going to school for (2 or 3 years after you played in the NBA ) will be different if you have 2 or 3 million in your bank account .Then if your lucky enough to last longer in the NBA you should have enough money you will not need to go to school to be a African history major you can go learn how to mange your money or a business because your not going to want to go to work to make 25k or 30k with a Batchlors degree.

cmpop77 says:

Yep. There it is. I was waiting for someone real smart to say “you must be a louisville fan”. Lol. You guys always blame everything on UofL. We didn’t make the tourny, louisvilles fault. We sucked saggy ass this year, louisvilles fault. The courier journal printed what we perceived as an improper jab at noel, louisville fans fault. When the ncaa sanctions the crap out of UK and cal is exposed as the cheating turd everyone knows he is are you guys going to cry louisvilles fault too. We’ll see. Btw in am from oregon and moved to kentucky 4 years ago and i must say a good 80% of UK fans i know and have met are arrogant and plain impossible to stomach during basketball season. They are why i pull for the cards.

Dan J. says:

Bill you must be a Louisville fan, and since you know how to spell “cynical” I’m guessing you went to Bellarmine. And there is a huge difference between the one and done rule and what Mike Rice ( the Rutgers coach you mentioned btw) did to his players. Whether you want to admit that or not. Feel free to bury your head back in the sand for another 20 years.

Kevin Blowers says:

Great advice for the Coach of the NBA’s D League Kentucky franchise. The more work Calipari does the less NBA scouts have to evaluate. Has anyone ever asked if these “super recruits” are interested in attending college at all. Rescind the “one-and-done” rule and let these kids learn on the job. Meanwhile, make UK pay an NBA franchise fee.

Bill Haddox says:

How Cynical!! What about education for these kids? That is the purpose of University Life to begin with.. If they don’t make it in the nba–then what?? In my book any coach that allows ‘one & done’is no better a person than the Rutgers Coach who was just fired–not to mention that the ‘system is flawed too’!! Coaches have an obligation to see that education actually takes place–yes I know that scholarships are just for one yr–that sucks too(should be changed to 4 yrs.)

Ineluctable says:

You also have to recruit brains. Calipari clearly didn’t do that. The guards were terrible and Poythress was even worse. Wiltjer was the smartest player they had and that is definitely not what is needed. Someone has to run the offense and be able to think on their feet. The Cats did not have this.

Kevin Brown says:

David – Go back and correct your error and then it will like John is mistaken. LOL.

John Sugg says:

David – you misspelled “toughness”. For that reason, I didn’t even read your article. If you made that mistake, why should I value anything else you have to write? Remember, first impressions count – especially in journalism. – John S., UK ’89, ’95.

Kevin Brown says:

While I agree that mental toughness is necessary, it would be very difficult to determine the metrics with which to measure it. If Coach Cal can look at these young recruit’s stats and pick out who’s going to just play harder when the Ref’s aren’t blowing whistles and calling hand (or even body fouls), then he’s gifted beyond words.

I do feel that it’s a unique position that Coach Cal finds himself, in which he actually could decline an All-American Top 5 choice based on his lack of faith in that player’s work ethic. Not too many coaches could be forgiven, or would even have the oppurtunity to pass on such a player. Coach Cal has top picks “filing” into Lexington like we’re giving away free T’shirts! Gotta Love it.

I understand that the author of this article is trying to address any possible concern that the National Title Team had some three and four year players on it as well, and given the nature of teams comprised primarily of one-and-done players, there won’t be too many experienced three and four year players that have seen any reasonable amount of playing time in the future.

Jeff Phelps says:

What a joke of an article. The man wins a title in his first 3 years at UK and you think he should do better???????? I think you should do better at having a brain.