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Does Kentucky Basketball Have a Branding Problem?


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.

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.

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.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

47 responses to “Does Kentucky Basketball Have a Branding Problem?”

  1. Ridge Runner

    I don’t know that this is anything new to be honest. It’s been this way since Cal came. Talent over kids less talented get playing time. Some of these kids go elsewhere.

    1. Ridge Runner

      A 5star who doesn’t develop enough to bump others of course will wish to move on over a non 5 star —and frankly I’m surprised Green didn’t transfer before season started.

    2. Wade

      Why would green have left?only a couple free throws from having a clear path to a championship. We just screwed the pooch!

    3. DT in DC

      So when other fans have been saying this for a few years, we were told we weren’t real fans, etc. It’s been obvious for sometime now, so it’s refreshing to see someone at KSR write about it.

      I mean, I love Coach Cal and wouldn’t take another coach over him, but after winning 2 of the last 3 National Championships, I don’t think anyone can slam the Jay Wright approach right now.

  2. SanDiegoCats

    It could just be a player who is 3rd in the rotation and will be hindered even more next year with the coming of Maxey.

  3. brandond373

    They act like we’ve never made a tournament run with new perimeter players

  4. michaelb

    Exactly what ridge runner said . We didn’t invent this , we just play the kids that can win the games . It’s that Simple . Only a mystery to overthinkers and over analyzers & people that the system is non beneficiary to

  5. shelby

    Very very good read. I agree with all of it. Lee, Matthews, sacha, nick, Skal, and quade are ALL being used against Cal on the recruiting trail. Cal needs to either learn to coach non one-and-dones, OR hire an asst who can get the elite one and dones to UK! I don’t think there’s a 3rd option.

    1. E11Q

      WCS, the Twins, Terrance Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Derrick Willis. Those guys seemed to develop pretty well when they stayed multiple years. Unless you think they developed IN SPITE of playing for Cal. Which, if that’s the case, means you will never give Cal any credit because if a guy is a One and Done, then you’re logic will be “well he was already elite, Cal didn’t do anything” and if a guy stays multiple years and gets better it’s “well he developed on his own, in spite of Cal.” So no matter what, Cal can’t do anything right.

    2. bigblue2284

      I think your giving Cal a lot of credit for those guys you mentioned, in fact none are still in the NBA. He actually brought the twins and Jones stock down. All the players that stand out in the Cal era were mostly highly sought after elite talents.

    3. bigblue2284

      Correction Andrew H is barley in the NBA still.

    4. UKWildcatNation

      Ummmm…pretty sure WCS and Darius Miller are playing pretty well in the League right now. Clueless much…

  6. Kat4Life

    This is a predictable by-product of recruiting the best available talent at every position and “letting the best man win”…..I don’t think Cal misrepresents that. Earning quality mins at this place can be hard, and some guys just don’t want to be on the bench. Quade was such a player, he knows he can get his 30 mins a game at another D1 school, and he’s going to do it. Hard to parlay a backup guard role for this particular team into what he wants. Hell, he thought he might be one and done himself. Good luck to him, and as bad as it was for him this year…..it would likely have been worse next year.

  7. calmdown

    All the negativity really get ridiculous. This happens with us almost every single year Cal has been here. With the exception of the Nerlens Noel team I’ll take it. Cal always has his teams ready when it come tournament time. We have won the sec tournament I think four years in a row. Still it seams every year fans are tore up, and when the sec tournament comes everyone is all Cal is the greatest. He hasn’t forgotten how to coach over the last 9 months. Give me a break. Quade should have left before the season started. Anyone can tell he’s not the number 25 player in the class now. I truly wish him the best, but we will be fine without him. The season is still early, and we lost to Seaton Hall because of some ridiculous shot making. Always get better during camp Cal. ALWAYS. CALM DOWN!!

    1. Peter Criss

      You’re right, historically we have progressed and been able to play our best in March. However, this is probably going to be the biggest challenge yet because the SEC is as strong as I can remember. UK is going to have a hard time winning 10 games in the conference this year. Tennessee is really, really good with a lot of veteran players.

  8. bwise

    Greens depart really hurts? Naw. Completely disagree. Pampered little boy who isn’t good a ball.

  9. The Professor

    This was right on the money.

  10. Cmart0907

    I couldn’t agree more.

  11. Cmart0907

    Good Job Aaron. What an excellent article.

  12. b2h3slin

    Still doesn’t add up while Cal is consistently missing the top tier talent. Quade was highly ranked but did anybody really consider him a one and done type player? I find it hard to believe recruits are buying into the negative recruiting from Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Carolina, etc. I don’t think Anthony Edwards is afraid of losing minutes to Quade Green. Cal plays younger, higher upside guys more, but shouldn’t that help recruiting the top level talent? Recruiting isn’t the issue here. Honestly, it’s the coaching.

    1. syrin23

      Most of the recent top talent is staying home to play for local schools which doesn’t hurt us at all. What hurts us is when they all go to the same school like they did this year after Duke opened up the check books.

    2. RealCatsFan

      Bingo! And unfortunately dook is immune to any kind of repercussions for any violations they commit. They are set – the vampire owns the NCAA.

    3. Wade

      That’s what happens when u Win gold for team USA and you don’t. Calipari messed that up with his theory of if I have the talent can just roll out the ball and rj Barrett killed him! Hard work beats talent when talent forgets to work hard!!! Write that down cal! I love cal he’s great dude but it’s time to coach and stop thinking you’ve reached a status we’re it will be given not earned! Like that y’all!!!???

  13. Sasquatch

    Well, I think the solution is pretty obvious. Elite players and local 4 year players that love everything that comes with being a UK player.

    1. JoshtheCATSfan

      Absolutely

    2. JoshtheCATSfan

      I agree with sasq

    3. WatchutalkinboutWillis

      This is the one area I totally agree about. As long as the KY boys know they are coming for four years and will have to fight for every minute they get, and have good academic standing, attitudes, and records…why not offer them?

  14. BallDontLie

    If the “best shooter” for a team that isnt shooting well sees his minutes go down in 2 consecutive games against the best teams we have played since duke, then that should tell you everything you need to know about how poorly he was actually playing in just about every other area on the court. Wish him nothing but the best. But from a basketball standpoint this isnt really a loss.

    1. syrin23

      That one handed pass off the dribble at the ankles of Nick that went OB was just AWFUL.

  15. chris gettelfinger is not walking through that door

    Interesting take.

  16. Chubs034

    This article would have been better if it made more since. Cal does not play the players with more upside/potential! If that was the case he would play EJ or NICK RICHARDS OVER REID TRAVIS! Also I don’t see how it hurts really to lose QUADE other then in the locker room. He was garbage, just to be frank! He only played approximately 10 mpg. He is not a PG. He is an undersized SG WITH SHAKY SHOT SELECTION & POOR DECISION MAKING! He was one of the main culprits in regards to not playing any defense, jacking shots up as soon as he got the ball whether he was guarded or not, & turning the ball over, which is some of the biggest issues with this squad thus far in this young season. Now don’t get me wrong I love the kid! Once a wildcat always a wildcat, but we won’t miss him on the court.

    1. RkyMntCatFan

      Agreed

  17. No more excuses cal

    Call needs to at some point take a inventory of his current roster and be loyal to those that have hung around for a year or two and stop requreting over them this cost us Poole Mathew’s Johnson Humphrey brisco jones and now green but I guess we still player’s first the gold standard of basketball as long as cal can put a player or two in the NBA draft

    1. WatchutalkinboutWillis

      Poole and Matthews only stayed one year…they were not veterans. Also, what Jones? Terrence Jones? Who started for NC team? Your argument is horse crap.

  18. kjd

    Branding problem….horse Doo.
    Recruiting and coaching problem. You said it, Calipari doesn’t develop ( that’s coaching or lack of it) kids that stay. This is all on Calipari.

    1. WatchutalkinboutWillis

      Doesn’t develop? Booker, WCS, SGA, Ulis….were those five star surefire nba players when they came to Kentucky? Another made up argument to further a false narrative.

  19. Racerr11

    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. That pretty much says it all. Quade will always be a Cat in my mind and I wish him the best. I personally don’t think him leaving will hurt the Cats at all. Quade made a lot of careless turnovers but was probably at this point are best outside shooter, he won’t be when it’s all said and done this year. I actually think this will help are team in the long run because the other guards will get more playing time and the rotation will be shorter and we look better playing 7 or 8 players. Quade I appreciate your time here and wish you the best in life .

  20. hillbilly cat

    Great analysis.

  21. Underdog

    Tell the prospective player,

    “I hope you are a one and done, if you have that hope, and we will develop you toward that end, but if it turns out that you need more time, and even if you have to take a backseat to other players who may be one and dones, Kentucky is still the place for you. Whether it’s the NBA or prep signing a lucrative contract in Europe or Asia or wherever, we will get you there. This is the place to come if you want to play professionally SOMEWHERE. If you are a two, or three, or even four-year player, this is the best place to come and develop and prepare for a professional career. The benefit to staying at Kentucky longer than one year, is the community will get to know you and you can parlay your status into business success as well, and you can graduate. Let me tell you about our academic programs…”

  22. Headhurts

    Cals the best coach for this job right now, he isn’t perfect, but when u look at the total picture, he’s the one. Now his assistants need some work, they need a young ex-NBA player to connect with recruits, not Barbee, Justice. But say, D Rose, rod strickland, type.

  23. UKFootballYall

    Kinda seems like Cal’s system and process has grown outdated. Maybe it’s time to focus on developing a TEAM and implementing a primary approach for winning games rather than just developing guys individually for jumping into the NBA. He’s not getting the top, top talent anymore and his process produces dysfunctional teams because he is trying to put a square peg through a round hole.

  24. lecantrell

    To those that are happy with Cal’s success during his time at UK – how many NCAA championship banners have been hung during his tenure? I, for one, could care less about how many former UK players he has sent to the NBA to keep himself in the spotlight. The main focus should be winning!

    1. Booby Petrino

      as many as were hung by his predecessors, minus Rupp and those who won zero. But you probably didn’t have a problem with Hall or Pitino, did you? I assume you weren’t a Tubby fan.

    2. Booby Petrino

      The only coach at UK to win more championships was Rupp. Were you wanting every other coach fired besides Rupp?

  25. eyebleedblue

    The player ranking system needs to be adjusted. Comparing players from one class to the next by a number isn’t apples to apples. Maybe 5 stars need to be reserved for can’t miss players or something but some of this fault lies on the 24/7s of the world who reinforce 4 star talent as a 5 star one and done. Sure that’s not what they mean with the ranking but some teenagers will invariably sit see their ranking and think they’re AD or Kat.

    1. kjd

      Why do coaches rely on star rankings? IMO that’s a big part of what makes a coach really good, is seeing a player in person and identifying theirtalent/skill level.

  26. Wildcat Sheli

    In an interview sometime around 2015-16, Cal made an offhand comment about players staying longer than 1 year who didn’t do what they needed to to go pro when they should have. I didn’t like the comment then and don’t like this trend of early exits. Tyler Ulis confirmed Cal told him if he thought he was here four years, not to go to UK. I know Cal has softened his comments in recent years, now saying it’s not a failure to stay more than one year, but forgetting about people on the bench doesn’t always help the case. I still believe that Cal is the absolute best. Go ‘Cats!