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Shame on anyone for ever questioning John Calipari’s recruiting touch


Photo by UK Athletics

On Wednesday, Kentucky basketball got another big-time basketball commitment.

If that sounds like a sentence that I simply copied and pasted from a previous article, well, it’s not far off. Over the last few weeks, Kentucky locking in a big-time commitment has seemingly become a weekly occurrence, no different than calling your mom every Sunday just to check in and say hello.

In this case, the player was Tyrese Maxey, a big, powerful, 6’4 guard, widely considered to be the second best point guard in the class of 2019. For those who follow recruiting, you also know that the only point guard ranked ahead of Maxey in the 2019 rankings is Ashton Hagans, who is also committed to Kentucky (although he’ll probably re-classify to the class of 2018). The Wildcats also have a third, five-star recruit in 2019 (D.J. Jeffries), and when you couple all that with a late spring commitment of E.J. Montgomery, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that John Calipari is on one of the hottest recruiting runs of his time at Kentucky.

Still, with the Maxey news, it also may finally put to rest one of the stupidest narratives in sports, one that had gained traction in recent years. That narrative: That John Calipari had “lost” his recruiting touch, and has now suddenly “regained” it. That simply isn’t true, and along with asking “Is LeBron James clutch” might have been the dumbest storyline found anywhere in sports these last few years.

Before we look at these most recent classes, it’s important to remember one big thing: Even in Calipari’s best years, when he was the unquestioned best recruiter in the sport, it’s not like he got every single player he coveted. No coach does. In Cal’s legendary first recruiting class that produced John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, there was a whiff on Xavier Henry, who originally committed to him at Memphis. There were major runs at guys like Shabazz Muhammad and Emmanuel Mudiay, who ended up committing to UCLA and SMU respectively (Mudiay eventually skipped college basketball altogether and instead went overseas). There was Malik Newman picking Mississippi State over Kentucky. Again, no coach, in any sport, bats 1,000 percent in recruiting – not Coach Cal, Coach K, Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, nobody. Even Cal at his peak lost some guys that he wanted.

Then again, the “Did Cal lose his touch” narrative isn’t really about retracing things back to the beginning of his time in Lexington. Instead, it’s more about recent years, when Duke ramped up its recruiting efforts and brought in everyone from Marvin Bagley to Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson. Of course, that’s also a part of how this dumb narrative got started to begin with. Without discrediting Duke (because what they’ve done is incredible these last few years) it has sort of become a sort of stupid, zero-sum game between the two schools. Just because Duke started recruiting well, doesn’t mean that Kentucky stopped recruiting well. If anything, you could argue that Calipari has brought in two of his better classes period since Duke really jumped two feet in to the one-and-done game.

Let’s just take the 2016 class for example. While the recruiting experts didn’t rank the class No. 1, it was indisputably one of the finest that Calipari has ever put together. Of Kentucky’s five recruits, all five were eventually named McDonald’s All-American’s. Does that sound like a guy who is losing his recruiting “touch?” That class also led to some classic Calipari wins on the recruiting trail, including Malik Monk picking Kentucky over Arkansas (as someone who does a pair of weekly radio hits in Arkansas every week, let me tell you, that Monk commitment nearly led to the entire state of Arkansas burning to the ground). There was also a stunning recruiting win on Bam Adebayo, when virtually everyone had him pegged to NC State until the very end. In total, that class produced three eventual lottery picks in the 2017 draft, as well. Again, if that’s “losing” on the recruiting trail, than no one – not Kansas, Duke, UCLA, you name it – is “winning.”

Last year’s class was pretty much the same. For all the talk about the incredible freshman class Duke put together (and deservedly so, Marvin Bagley was awesome), it’s not as though Kentucky didn’t get good players. In total, they signed five of the Top 25 players in the class and six of the Top 30. And that doesn’t even include Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a future lottery pick, who will likely be the highest drafted out of all of the 2017 signees.

That also brings up an important point as well: At any school (not just Kentucky) you can’t judge recruiting “success” simply by what a website says, but instead, how the players actually play once they get to campus. Gilgeous-Alexander is a perfect example of that. At one point in his recruitment, Gilgeous-Alexander was probably considered a “reach” for Calipari. Instead, that was a player who Calipari saw potential in, when many of the “experts” didn’t. Forget what the rankings said when he graduated high school. Is there any doubt that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander developed into a “five-star” while he was on campus in Lexington?

And of course there are guys who didn’t come to Kentucky, but should still be discussed when the dumb “John Calipari lost his touch” conversation comes up. For example, Trae Young spent the better part of his recruitment openly flirting with Kentucky, and it was Kentucky that basically said “no thanks” by taking Quade Green instead. I mean, is it an exaggeration to say that if John Calipari had really prioritized Young, that he probably would have ended up a Wildcat? It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to me. Mo Bamba also nearly chose Kentucky over Texas last year. How different would last year’s class – which was already ranked No. 2 nationally, by the way – have looked if both Bamba and Young had committed to the Wildcats (which both nearly did)?

So ultimately that’s important to remember as Kentucky fans celebrate another John Calipari recruiting win on Thursday.

Tyrese Maxey isn’t a sign of changing times, or of John Calipari taking back some long lost turf.

It’s Coach Cal just doing what he’s always done.

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.”

24 responses to “Shame on anyone for ever questioning John Calipari’s recruiting touch”

  1. Catlogic15

    I can’t help but feel these recruiting riches are tangentially influenced by the pay-for-play scandals rocking college basketball.
    Also, that Cal and Kentucky were squeaky clean throughout the whole messy time frame being investigated. BBN should be proud.

  2. FlatTopsAndBlockedShots

    Wenyen wasn’t a McDAAG since he was considered a post grad player, same restriction that kept John Wall out of the McDAAG. Wenyen was named to the JBC and Team USA, so an All-American of some sorts either way.

  3. Sentient Third Eye

    I don’t think Cal ever lost his touch, but he did probably rest on his laurels a bit for a few years, perhaps trying to rely more on assistants to do more of the heavy lifting.

    1. FlatTopsAndBlockedShots

      That’s more of a fact than you may think. They brought in Joel Justus to start recruiting with younger classes when he came in the 2018 class being the first class he targeted and Quickley was actually the first player he went to see practice when he was a Sophomore.

  4. JandPsDad

    And Jeff Goodman has been silent recently … thankfully!!!

    1. ClutchCargo

      Who?

    2. runningunnin.454

      Roseanne’s husband…lol.

  5. sardiscat

    If only college upperclassmen wanted to play for Cal as much as high school players do. . . .

    1. Ridge Runner

      Hidden intent and perhaps jab aside…. me too to be honest.

  6. wyatts1

    Getting top players is a great thing, and seemingly a must to make a run come every March. But, let there be no doubt ever, here in KY we celebrate championships, not who’s got the best recruiting class every year (although it’s nice). Bringing home championships and keeping the talent thats here is just as or maybe more important. Instead of players transferring, or leaving to early to play in the G-league, instead of continuing to play at the best school in America for college basketball. I know the argument about these kids should do the best for themselves and their family, but at what point do we start trying to keep some players here as hard as we try to recruit them to start with? Sorry about getting side tracked but the goal here at UK in my eyes “and what I believe most fans” is CHAMPIONSHIPS. Being the best in recruiting is a great thing, but so is developing and keeping those players that was so coveted and hard to get to start with. Everything should happen for only one ultimate goal, bringing home #9. Then #10 etc etc and just like these kids should do what’s best for them and their families, UK needs to also do what’s best for them and their college dynasty.

  7. Duff86

    Bron is 0-7 on game winners in the NBA Finals (Games that matter, not these dumb fi and 2nd round games). Jordan was 4-8.

    1. JoeMoney333

      Go home old man. LeBron is better.

    2. jaws2

      When he wins chip #6 let me know.

    3. Bobbum Man

      Lebrons better for sure, if he had one of the greatest coaches of all time for his entire career he’d probably very well be there. Imagine if he played on Pops team since he was drafted

  8. Wildfelinebeeline

    Thanks Aaron for a great article! I’m sick of seeing articles on ESPN that depict Cal as a loser to Coach K on a somewhat frequent basis! I truly wonder what ESPN gets out of painting Cal in a negative or lessor light. In fact, the writers at ESPN have written so many Duke articles, that one West Virginia fan is famous for calling them about it in their comments sections!

  9. njCat

    Sorry Aaron, but he WAS slipping. The number of top 10 guys he ‘just missed out on’ over the past several years is very high. He didn’t miss out on many of those guys in his early years.

    And if you don’t get the very best freshmen in the country (top 5 players), you can’t win championships with a predominantly freshman team.

    Glad to see he’s turning things around finally.

  10. UKLugo

    Still 2nd to the Dukies. I hate being second to the Dukies. 2019 will be a knock down draw out.

  11. Ridge Runner

    Stokes my paranoia a little. Really focusing on recruitment 2 years out more than I recall (even the potential reclassifications withstanding) and the 2020 target year for ending one and done makes me worry is that also the year he plans to retire. Just a thought…

  12. Cmart0907

    Who cares about recruiting classes when Villanova hasn’t recruited up to par as UK or Duke and still won 2 out of 3 last championships?

    1. Sentient Third Eye

      Villanova proves there’s a value to being only “very good” but being “very good” every single year. Maybe on the years when talent is up, that means they are only a #10-15 team in the country, but on years like their title years when talent was down, they are automatically poised to rise to the top. Notice that both of those years were years when the most common refrain of analysts was, “there are no great teams this year”.

    2. Cmart0907

      At the end of the day. They still won 2 out of the last 3 national titles. Recruiting classes don’t mean squat if they don’t produce on the court.

    3. henderblue

      Maybe you’re on the wrong website Kmart. I mean Vmart

    4. wyatts1

      Amen C-mart. It’s awesome that we can get these great recruits but as I mentioned above we don’t spend 1/2 the amount of energy trying to keep some of these kids from transferring or declaring (especially if they aren’t a 1st rounder). Recruiting, facilities, dorms etc etc is all a distant second if we don’t win in March!! I’m happy we get such good recruits but unless we win some titles then it’s all for nothing. Some around UK has became ok with having the best recruiting class instead of winning championships lol it’s crazy

    5. henderblue

      Who cares about Villanova?