A bad couple months for Kentucky basketball got worse on Wednesday with the news that Quade Green has decided to transfer from the school. When it rains it pours, and right now it’s pouring in Lexington. The Wildcats are 7-2, basically have no quality wins and are coming off a disappointing and at times head-scratching loss to Seton Hall on Saturday. Now they’ve lost a key reserve off their bench.
And if we’re being totally honest, Green’s departure really hurts. Sure, Ashton Hagans is slowly evolving into a solid starting point guard for the Wildcats, and yes, Green has deficiencies in his game that limited how much you could play him depending on the opponent, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kentucky lost a very valuable piece on Wednesday afternoon. On a team lacking three-point shooting, Green was the team’s best outside shooter (hitting 42 percent) and brought a veteran poise to games that neither Hagans or Immanuel Quickley has at this point. As Jon Rothstein pointed out on Twitter, Kentucky now has zero guards on its roster who have ever played in an NCAA Tournament game.
With Quade Green's departure, Kentucky now doesn't have a single perimeter player on its roster that played in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Something to remember long term. #BBN
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 12, 2018
More important than Green’s individual departure however, is that this decision continues a disturbing trend for the Wildcats. For the fourth time in the last 30 months, Kentucky has now lost a non-freshman who has seemingly gotten lost in the rotation, with Green joining Charles Matthews, Marcus Lee and Sacha Killeya-Jones on the transfer market since spring of 2016. Not to mention that Wenyen Gabriel, Isaac Humphries and Isaiah Briscoe went pro despite minimal NBA prospects (although Briscoe has played himself into an NBA prospect during that stretch) during that stretch as well.
Add it up, and what has become a common talking point among fans has become an increasingly obvious trend. With each passing departure, it’s becoming more and more apparent that for whatever reason, players don’t seem to think there is a future for them at Kentucky after their sophomore seasons. Kentucky has become a place where it’s basically become “one-and-done or bust” for their players.
And it’s led me to one simple question: Does Kentucky basketball have a branding problem right now?
It seems so.
Let me explain.
No matter what narrative John Calipari sells to any individual player, the bottom line is that Kentucky is still seen as a “one-and-done” school in the eyes of recruits. Not every player comes to school thinking they are a for sure one and done guy (Sacha Killeya-Jones comes to mind as one who admitted when he committed that he’d be more than one year) but the consensus is that if you get an offer from Kentucky, it’s validation that you’re on the fast track to the NBA. Maybe not always in a single season, but pretty close to it. Fair or not, that’s just the perception when a kid commits to the school. It is also a perception that is wholly unique to Kentucky, Duke and maybe one or two other schools (Arizona, pre-FBI investigation for example). Trust me, as someone who covers college basketball and talks to coaches all over the country, there isn’t a single kid who commits to Michigan, Gonzaga or Virginia thinking “I’m only going to be here one year.” Sometimes it works out that way (like Zach Collins at Gonzaga in 2017) but again, that’s never the plan.
So that’s the reality with Kentucky and recruiting: Whether it’s realistic or not, just about every kid comes to the school thinking that they’ll be gone in a year or two. And when you’re recruiting Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, De’Aaron Fox or Malik Monk that isn’t really a problem.
The problem of course is that as time has gone on, Kentucky has gotten fewer of those players. So what happens when you’re getting guys with the potential to be really good college players and maybe fringe pros, but ones that aren’t surefire NBA prospects who are ready to go pro after one year? You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. After that first year the kid either feels like he isn’t being developed well enough or will eventually be recruited over and starts looking for other options. Fair or not, that’s kind of become the reality in Lexington (for the record, it’s happened at Duke to, which has lost Chase Jeter, Derryck Thornton and Jordan Tucker to transfer in recent years).
Which leads us to where we are now: Kentucky is a basketball program with a branding problem. It’s a place seen as a “one-and-done factory” that is increasingly getting fewer one-and-dones. The problem therein lies with the guys who aren’t quite one and done guys – and what happens to them when they’re forced to come back for another year.
Again, it’s one-and-done or bust in Lexington. And the scary thing for Kentucky fans is that there is no clear solution to fix the problem.
Some would say that Kentucky needs to do a better job developing three and four-year players. In theory it makes sense, but the problem is, that’s not really John Calipari’s “brand.” What makes Calipari so appealing on the recruiting trail is that he has the blueprint to get you to the NBA in one year. Him selling “I can get you to the NBA in four years” isn’t only counter-intuitive, but not even remotely unique to him. If you’re a guy who is clearly going to need four years in college, why would you want to go to a place like Kentucky (unless you simply want to attend the school or are a fan?). Wouldn’t you much rather go to a place that develops the heck out of those type of players – the Villanova’s, Michigan’s, etc? To be fair to John Calipari, the opposite holds true as well: If you’re a one-and-done guy, why would you even consider going to Villanova or Michigan? It makes no sense (more on this coming in a minute).
It’s worth noting that obviously some of this is in fact on Calipari and his style. For years we’ve all known that Calipari – to his credit, and at times detriment – prefers giving every opportunity to younger players with higher-upside, over more experienced players who might not be quite as good. The concept, quite simply is “I want my best players playing best in March” and it’s hard to argue with that. One, he’s got the track record to back it up, with seven trips to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in nine seasons. Two, again, it’s his brand. The whole “I’ll take top talent over experience every day,” ideal is something he’s been selling for years.
Which brings us back to Green. While I personally believe he should have gotten more playing time (Green’s defense was no worse than say, Tyler Herro’s, and his offense was much better relative to minutes played) it’s also hard for me to criticize Calipari here.
Why is that? Well, simple really: Because I’ve been critical of Jay Wright at Villanova for doing the exact opposite. In case you haven’t noticed those Wildcats (the ones at Villanova) are struggling right now and the big talking point is that they have a star freshman named Jahvon Quinerly who basically can’t get playing time. Quinerly played just one-minute last night against Penn and is averaging a meager 8.6 minutes per game on the season. Quinerly seemingly has an NBA future, but Jay Wright has decided that he is going to play the veterans he trusts more over the kid with the higher-upside. And it led to some controversy last night when Quinerly posted about his frustrations on Instagram.
Two weeks ago I said Jahvon Quinerly shouldnt have gone to Villanova – a school that doesnt take one and done type guys, and certainly doesnt feature them like Duke/Kentucky do. Villanova fans CRUSHED me for it. After another DNP tonight, this is what Quinerly put on Instagram ? https://t.co/s26Mra05E4
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) December 12, 2018
Ultimately it’d be unfair of me to criticize Calipari for taking the opposite approach of Wright, and if anything I guess it proves that there is no perfect option or plan. Every program has problems. Villanova can’t keep one-and-done kids happy, Kentucky can’t keep vets happy. Virginia has success in the regular season but can’t win in March. Duke has the same number of titles since they switched to the one-and-done model (one) as Kentucky does. Gonzaga has one Final Four in school history, while Kentucky has four in the Calipari era alone.
So yeah, everyone deals with their own version of issues and problems.
But Kentucky’s biggest flaw was only heightened on Wednesday: They can’t figure out a way to get upperclassmen and keep them happy.
It’s a problem that’s been growing for years and doesn’t seem to be going away.
And there’s not an obvious fix in sight. Which is going to continue to be bad news.