From the moment John Calipari debuted his new team in August on a six-game exhibition tour in the Bahamas, the story with Kentucky has been its depth. Kentucky was the team with so many McDonald's All-Americans it needed a platoon system. It was the team people joked would face its best competition all season during scrimmages. It was the team that could have as many as 10 NBA players.
For most of the season, that depth carried Kentucky. The Wildcats had games where they trailed at the half (Buffalo, Columbia) and games where they were taken to overtime (Ole Miss, Texas A&M) but eventually Kentucky would wear out the opposition with wave after wave of talent. It looked like a bulletproof plan, at least until Notre Dame pushed Kentucky to the brink in the Elite Eight.
As Kentucky found itself trailing with less than 10 minutes to go and its perfect season on the line, depth didn't matter much. Instead, Calipari called on his most talented player. The ball went in to Karl-Anthony Towns in the post again and again, and the freshman delivered with 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting as Kentucky escaped at the buzzer.
It was the best game of Towns' career and a performance so convincing it pushed him past Jahlil Okafor in NBA draft rankings from ESPN and DraftExpress for the first time all season. Some might have been surprised by how dominant Towns was with the season on the line, but you can bet Calipari wasn't among them.
In more than one way, Towns is Calipari's crown jewel. Cal recruits top talent every year, from Derrick Rose to Anthony Davis to the rest of this undefeated Kentucky team. He's just never gone as far to get one player as he did to get Towns.
In 2011, Calipari agreed to coach the Dominican Republic national team at the FIBA Americas Championship. At the time, Calipari said he wanted to mentor young coaches and grow the game in the Dominican similar to work he did with China back when he was coaching Memphis. Even then, no one really believed him.
Many thought Cal agreed to coach a country he had no real connection to because it could be an advantage in recruiting. It just so happened that there was one young player with Dominican blood every college coach in the country could be looking at a few years down the line:
One such recruit is Karl Towns Jr., a 6'10 1/2, 220-pound eighth-grader from Piscataway, N.J. Towns, 15, is a two-sport athlete who has strong interest in Kentucky, Florida and Rutgers, among others, according to his father, Karl Towns Sr.
Towns, whose mother, Jackie, is Dominican-American, will play this summer for the Dominican under-17 team comprised of New York-area and Dominican players. That team is coached by Oliver Antigua, the twin brother of Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua.
Towns hadn't even finalized his high school plans at the time, but Calipari was already after his college commitment. Towns wouldn't play on the 2011 team, but after the DR finished one spot short of securing a bid to the 2012 London Olympics, Cal was back to coach the team in the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
This time, a 16-year-old Towns was on the roster alongside several NBA players including Al Horford. He played nine minutes against Team USA, making a three-pointer and blocking a Russell Westbrook layup. Calipari failed in his goal to get the Dominican Republic to the Olympics, but Towns would commit to Kentucky later that year. It sure seems like everything worked out the way Cal wanted it to.
To this day, Calipari claims he didn't take the job with the DR just to gain a recruiting edge. Back in 2012, he said he didn't even know who Towns was when he originally accepted the offer:
"I didn't know who he was a year ago. It's funny ... I coach this team and you say, ‘You know why he's coaching that?' Everybody has an opinion," Calipari said. "It's amazing, you all know what's in my mind before I even figure out what's in my mind.
"He is a player who is a good player that I did not know a year ago, didn't know anything about. He's a pretty good player. He's young. Will he make the team? I don't know. He's 16 years old. He's 6'10 and, you know ... but he's getting muscled right now. The guys trying to make the team are throwing him around, and it's a good experience for him."
It's funny because it's classic Cal, the perfect anecdote to show just how far he's willing to go as a recruiter. Agree to coach a country he has no affiliation with because there's a talented eighth-grader who might help us four years from now? Why not.
Let's not pretend like Calipari is the first coach to leverage a spot on a national team as a recruiter advantage. How do you think Mike Krzyzewski landed Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor?
The experience paid off, both for Towns and Calipari. Kentucky is in position to become the first team to finish the season as undefeated national champions since Indiana did it in 1975-76. Despite having so many other top recruits on the roster, they wouldn't be here without Towns essentially carrying them past Notre Dame all by himself.
Stockpiling top freshmen the way Calipari (or Krzyzewski) has done might seem like a shortcut to success, but the truth is that it takes years to build those relationships. Towns is the most barefaced example of that yet.
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