LEXINGTON, Ky. — The saying went something like, “This isn’t your father’s Kentucky Wildcats!” shortly after John Calipari arrived in Lexington a dozen years ago and proceeded to change UK’s identity with his one-and-done philosophy of bringing high-end, short-term talent to one of college basketball’s most storied programs.
Well, now, “This isn’t your older brother’s Kentucky Wildcats!” is appropriate with Coach Cal’s influx of transfers, and you can bet that Calipari won’t allow a repeat performance of the nine-win train wreck that occurred last season.
Calipari is coming off his worst year in his 29 seasons as a D-I head coach, with the only comparable campaign coming as a 29-year-old “rookie” at UMass when he went 10-18. But that team had zero expectations, while last year’s Kentucky team featured a handful of top-50 players (including a pair of top-10 guys) but somehow wound up finishing 9-16 overall and eighth in the SEC.
“I’m done with last season,” Calipari said. “It was a blip. That’s so far behind me.”
This approach of bringing in quick-turn NBA talent has frustrated many in Lexington because it has resulted in just a singular national title, and we’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of when Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist cut down the nets on April 2, 2012 at the Superdome in New Orleans. Calipari has made a trio of other Final Four appearances at UK, and also advanced to three Elite Eights, but that currently seems overshadowed by the six-year Final Four drought and the misery of a year ago.
Let’s face it: Youth hasn’t exactly been served of late in the sport. In fact, since Kentucky cut down the nets in 2012, the only other instance of a truly freshman-laden team winning the national title was in ’15 when Duke beat Wisconsin in the championship contest. It’s been older teams such as Villanova in ’16 and ’18, North Carolina in ’17, Virginia in ’19 and Baylor last season that have won it all.
So, Calipari did what everyone else was doing. He hit the transfer portal and got old.
It started midway through last season when he landed former West Virginia big man Oscar Tshiebwe. The 6-foot-9, 260-pounder already has 41 career starts on his resume and has two-year averages of 10.6 points and 8.9 boards per game. Calipari also pulled Davidson guard Kellan Grady, who has averaged at least 17 points in each of his four seasons, and CJ Fredrick, who spent two seasons starting at Iowa. Then the final piece was a pass-first point guard with speed as the ‘Cats added a familiar face in former Georgia starting floor leader Sahvir Wheeler.
“I said it when they changed the rule and allowed transfers to play right away,” Calipari said. “It is going to help Kentucky.”
And it has.
THE 2021-22 BLUEPRINT
Calipari has now been able to mesh some of the top high school talent with holdovers (Keion Brooks, Jacob Toppin, Dontaie Allen and Lance Ware) and also coveted transfers. This year’s freshman class wasn’t as high-powered as past groups, with no top-10 recruit. But Cal still brought in three talented frosh in TyTy Washington (No. 14), Daimion Collins (No. 15) and Bryce Hopkins (No. 38).
Instead of relying on just a lone freshman point guard — as was the case a year ago with Devin Askew — Calipari has a pair of guys who can run the team in Wheeler and Washington. As for Collins, he won’t have to log 30 minutes — unless he’s ready — since they have a veteran big man like Tshiebwe on the roster.
Calipari addressed another major need when he landed Grady and Fredrick to go along with Washington and Davion Mintz. Grady and Mintz each shot 38 percent from three last season, Fredrick led the Big Ten at 47 percent and Washington could wind up being the best of all from long distance. That doesn’t even include Allen, who shot 40 percent from three last year.
Calipari knows that having a roster full of shooters can go a long way. In 29 seasons, only two of Calipari’s teams have shot better than 38 percent from three.
“My first team could not shoot it well. I’ve had some, a couple teams back at UMass that could really shoot the ball,” Calipari said. “It makes it easier — making shots makes up for a multitude of sins.”
JURY STILL OUT
This team in Lexington will be different with their experience and shooting, but there may only be a couple of NBA players on the roster, something that’s been rare during the Calipari era. If guys like Grady, Fredrick, Wheeler and Tshiebwe were good enough to play in the NBA, they probably would have left college already.
While the ceiling won’t be quite as high for Kentucky, the floor should be higher than usual, especially early in the season. Calipari’s teams have regularly struggled in the non-conference slate, but there are just a couple of UK players who have to adjust to college basketball.
Of the 12 players on the roster, Mintz will return for a sixth season, Grady is in his fifth year of college, and Fredrick is in his fourth year. Toppin, Wheeler, Tshiebwe, Brooks and Allen are all in their third year of college, while Ware is in his second season.
The question that will come into play for many is how Calipari will adjust now that he won’t have more superior talent than just about everyone he goes up against.
Calipari says that he’ll change his system this year due to his personnel and take advantage of the speedy Wheeler and the perimeter shooting that he’ll have at his disposal.
“Now, what we’re going to do with our spacing is different,” said Calipari.
Calipari isn’t ready to commit to this new transfer approach long-term, telling me that this was far more out of necessity for the 2021-22 campaign than anything else.
He’s already secured commitments from four high school players ranked in the Top 20 of next year’s freshman class, including top-ranked Canadian guard Shaedon Sharpe, the first No. 1 player he will bring into Lexington since Nerlens Noel.
But Calipari isn’t done with this high school class yet, either.
“If this recruiting class finishes like I think it’s going to finish, the only way we take a transfer is if we have a roster of nine players,” Calipari told me. “If we miss on a kid, then maybe we take a transfer.”
And it’ll depend on who else leaves Lexington after this season. Brooks, Wheeler, Fredrick, Toppin, Allen and Ware seem likely to return next season. Tshiebwe has another year, and we’ll see which of the frosh try and become the latest one-and-dones for Calipari.
Calipari has made no secret he favors talent over experience, but the key is trying to come up with a blend that not only can silence some of his critics, but hang a ninth banner at Rupp.
“I can’t tell you whether we’ll do it again until after the season,” Calipari told me regarding whether he’ll hit the transfer portal hard again in the future.
But it’s the logical move, especially with the new one-time transfer rule that allows players to move schools and not have to sit a year. It should keep the portal buzzing again with no shortage of high-profile names.
This could be the ideal blueprint for Kentucky fans to be able to celebrate more than just landing McDonald’s All-Americans.
And if Calipari needs any validation, all he needs to do is call Scott Drew down in Waco.