In 2010, he was "the sleaziest coach in a sleazy game," and when his top-seed Kentucky team lost in the Elite Eight, it seemed like proof that John Calipari's system had some important holes in it. A team full of freshmen is great until the games get tight, experience matters, etc. Fast-forward to 2012, and Calipari's made two consecutive Final Fours. This year, he put together the most dominant collection of talent anyone's seen in years, and he's got Kentucky sitting atop the college basketball universe, looking more entrenched than ever.
Everyone always worries about what all this means for college basketball, and this year's Calipari team has prompted all the usual hand-wringing across college basketball and beyond. The anxiety's best explained in Chuck Klosterman's piece at Grantland last week:
Right now, there are always two foolproof arguments against the Calipari ideal — it reflects badly on the university, and it breaks down in moments that matter most. No one is going to emulate a program with a bad reputation if the end result is the same as doing things the way they've always been done. But that argument evaporates the moment Calipari climbs a ladder and cuts a net. If Kentucky is simultaneously the most straightforward finishing school for future professionals and the best place to win a national championship, there's no reason for a blue-chip high school senior to go anywhere else. Calipari will dynastically dominate with a revolving door of sheer horsepower, and the only way other schools will be able to respond is by becoming exactly like him.
Now, I'm not suggesting that every single college will turn into a clone of Kentucky, because that's impossible. There aren't enough good players in America for that to happen. But Calipari's scheme will become standard at a handful of universities where losing at basketball is unacceptable: North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, UCLA, and maybe even Duke. These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen, but they'll have to go further; they'll have to be as transparent about their motives as Calipari is (because transparency is the obsession of modernity). If they resist, they will fade.
Here, John Calipari is as much a talking point as he is a basketball coach. It's been this way since he was at Memphis, and now that he's at Kentucky, one of the college hoops' last true superpowers, the phenomenon's on steroids. His recruiting has become easier than ever, so he's getting better players, and as his teams orbit the top two or three spots in every Top 25, his system's success becomes a referendum on the direction of college hoops, in general.
"Calipari will dynastically dominate with a revolving door of sheer horsepower, and the only way other schools will be able to respond is by becoming exactly like him. ... If they resist, they will fade." This is wrong, though. It shortchanges college basketball, but more importantly, it shortchanges Calipari.
With the the former... North Carolina and Kansas don't have to become Kentucky to win titles. The team Carolina had this year might have beaten Kentucky if not for an injury to Kendall Marshall, and Kansas would've had a better shot Monday if they'd been playing with two star recruits who the NCAA ruled ineligible before the season started. Syracuse had a decent chance this year, too, if they'd been playing with Fab Melo, another casualty of eligibility issues.
Kentucky probably would've have beaten all those teams regardless, but at least they'd have met a worthy challenger. Instead, what happened in 2012 was a perfect storm to distort reality.
There was only one great basketball team by the end of the season, and everyone else looked hopeless, and we know this. But that's less an indication of Calipari's dominance than an aberration born from eligibility issues, fluke injuries, late-game mistakes, and every other snakebite that shapes college basketball's shining moments. The only thing that changed for Calipari is that for the first time in his career, he wasn't the one getting bitten.
Kentucky will always be great under Calipari, but Carolina and Kansas will be there, too. Same with Syracuse, Ohio State, and whichever blue collar team full of New York City kids the Big East decides to spit out every year. And no, we're not saying Duke here because Duke is the absolute worst, but maybe they'll be around, too.
Kentucky won't always be this good, and usually, the rest of college basketball will be better. A great college team has a good chance against a team of superstar freshmen every year. The more important point after Monday's final: Nobody can become Calipari.
The Calipari formula is fascinating, but what makes it brilliant is that only Calipari can pull it off. Look what happened to Washington with Tony Wroten this year. Or Austin Rivers and Kyrie Irving at Duke the past two years. Or, look at how badly outclassed Scott Drew was when his Baylor team faced off against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Look at Rick Barnes' entire career. Coaching young superstars isn't as easy as it looks, and Kentucky isn't "Harvard for Basketball Stars" by accident.
Calipari succeeds because he's the only coach with an isolation offense that reflexively showcases individual talent. He can sell the system to high school superstars, and then once they get there, he doesn't have to worry about getting them shots. The offense does that by itself.
So Cal can focus on coaching the players on defense, keeping them together as a team, and making them better as individuals. If you think that's all a bunch of intangible nonsense, go back and watch tape of Marquis Teague against Kansas in November, and then compare that to how he looked in Monday night's National Championship game. He's a completely different player, the same way Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went from a lottery prospect to maybe the number two pick in the draft. Over four months with Calipari, Anthony Davis became the most impressive NBA prospect we've seen since Kevin Durant.
All the "entitled AAU superstars" that perplex the rest of college basketball seem to fall in love with Cal, and then they get a lot better. His honesty about his goals--making Kentucky the premier destination for superstar recruits, putting players in the NBA--is either refreshing or sleazy depending on who you ask, but what gets lost in the argument over the NCAA's "first honest pimp" is that Calipari can coach his ass off. He plays a high stakes recruiting game and then starts from scratch at the beginning of every year, usually putting together a product that can compete with anyone by the end. Think about how insane that strategy is, and you begin to appreciate how impressive Calipari's success has been.
The Calipari formula has plenty of radioactive elements--star players attached to agents, SAT controversies, a European with eligibility issues--but don't let those distract you from the larger truth: There's only one coach in America who could work as a catalyst for all this.
So no, don't cry for the soul of college basketball here. John Calipari is not the future of college basketball coaches anymore than LeBron James is the future of NBA small forwards. Calipari's a different breed entirely, and like LeBron, there will be competition every year.
In the meantime, if he approaches the game differently and does things other coaches won't do, he also does things that other coaches can't do. And if anyone out there still thinks John Calipari's the sleaziest coach in a sleazy game, that's fine. Just don't forget he's probably the best, too.