John Calipari is, without question, the ruler of college basketball right now, and his minions are everywhere.
You would expect them to be all over the state of Kentucky because Calipari has restored order in that state during the first three years of his tenure, taking the Wildcats from the regional finals to the Final Four to the national championship. He returns almost no one from the team that cut the nets down in New Orleans last April, and there isn’t a soul in the game who thinks he can’t do it again in Atlanta next April.
For his part, Calipari wants everyone to know just how hard that will be. On an ESPN series laughably entitled, “All Access Kentucky,” Calipari gets to look into various cameras and repeatedly tell viewers how inexperienced his team is, how average his players look right now, and how hard he is going to work to make them better.
Putting aside Calipari’s talk about how his one-and-done players are still “student-athletes” and how he’s just at Kentucky to try to make their lives better, here are some indisputable facts:
• Calipari is a superb basketball coach. He proved it at Massachusetts where he took a team that had been 1-27 and went to the Final Four. He did it again at Memphis, coming within seconds of a national title in 2008. Of course, technically, neither of those Final Four appearances happened because some of his minions occasionally colored outside the lines. It doesn’t change the coaching job he did.
• He can charm almost anyone when he wants to: recruits and their families and “support groups” and, especially, anyone carrying a TV camera. Calipari once looked at an ESPN camera and said, with a straight face, that playing on “Game Night” was a major step forward for Kentucky basketball, which at the time had won just seven national titles.
• He’s going to have the best recruiting class in the country every year. Why? Because the best high school players want to drive through college as fast as they can en route to the NBA. Calipari didn’t invent the one-and-done rule, but he has used it better than anyone. Recruits know he’ll get them through the line as fast as possible.
• He isn’t going anywhere soon. Some think Calipari might be tempted to return to the NBA, where he failed pretty emphatically years ago in New Jersey. Not happening. He’s too smart for that. Plus, even if someone offers him $10 million a year, the good people of Kentucky will round up whatever it takes to keep him.
There are college basketball teams other than Kentucky, which opens the season Friday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., against Maryland. This may not sound like a brilliant move for Terps second-year coach Mark Turgeon, who played at Kansas when Calipari was an assistant under Larry Brown.
“I think it’s good scheduling,” Turgeon said. “Get them early, and at the same time let our new guys find out right away about how talented an opponent can be.”
Given the rest of Maryland’s nonconference schedule, a game against a talented team starting out is probably a good idea. The Terrapins could be 11-1 entering ACC play in January.
Kentucky enters the season ranked No. 3 behind Indiana and Louisville. If nothing else, having the top three teams practically on top of one another geographically makes for an interesting storyline to start the season. It would be more interesting if Calipari hadn’t canceled Kentucky’s longtime series with Indiana because the Hoosiers had the nerve to ask Kentucky to come to Bloomington once every four years: two neutral site games, two games played on campus sites.
Calipari was not pleased last December when Indiana fans stormed the Assembly Hall court after Chris Watford’s buzzer-beater gave the Hoosiers their first truly meaningful victory since Tom Crean took over five seasons ago. After going 28-66 in Crean’s first three seasons combined, the Hoosiers were 27-9 last season and reached the Round of 16 before losing a rematch with the Wildcats. Like Louisville, Indiana has most of its key pieces back, including the national player of the year favorite, Cody Zeller. He’s the younger brother of Tyler Zeller, a first-round pick out of North Carolina last June.
“I love Tyler; he’s been a wonderful player for us,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said last season. “But Cody has the potential to be considerably better than he is.”
There are plenty of other storylines around the country as the season begins this week. Among them:
• Can North Carolina State really wrest control of the ACC from North Carolina and Duke? State has one of the best freshman classes in the country, and the heart of the team back from the group that reached the Round of 16 a year ago.
• What will the Big East be like in the final season for Syracuse and Pittsburgh, and without Jim Calhoun coaching at Connecticut? Can Georgetown contend?
• After an all power-conference Final Four last spring (Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State), can an upstart contend again? Butler should be good after a relatively down season, as should Virginia Commonwealth. Both schools have joined the suddenly hoops-mad Atlantic-10. They could possibly meet in that league’s fial.
Finally, will Calipari’s Wildcats be crowned again in April? One way or the other, he’ll be there to tell us ALL about it.
John Feinstein is a contributor to The Washington Post and author of 28 books.