Absent of a few brief stretches in time, Kentucky men’s basketball has been the king of the castle when it comes to SEC basketball. Even going one step further, following a final four appearance, a national championship and multiple back-to-back #1 recruiting classes, John Calipari has Kentucky positioned as the kings of the castle in NCAA men’s basketball–not just the SEC. Other coaches across the country are struggling to keep up with Calipari’s frenetic pace when it comes to recruiting and putting his players in the NBA. His success at the moment is unmatched. Roy Williams, Coach K, Rick Pitino, Bill Self, etc. are all playing catch up to Calipari’s forward thinking. Right next door to Calipari though here in Lexington, Matthew Mitchell is helping create one of the best 1-2 punches in college basketball. The two are currently leading their programs to unprecedented heights, and their charismatic personalities are creating a perfect combination for the marketing of the Kentucky brand.
We have said it time and time again, but we are experiencing a golden era in Kentucky men’s basketball. There have been plenty in our rich basketball history, but this is certainly one of them and with the increase in exposure with social media and television– it all feels that much bigger. The golden era doesn’t just extend to men’s basketball though. Matthew Mitchell has the women’s program in the midst of a golden era of their own. The program won their first SEC regular season title in 30 years last season, also making a run to their second elite 8 in just 3 years. Both programs are on one of the biggest simultaneous upswings in the school’s history.
The amount of talent on both squads during this year’s Big Blue Madness event was a testament to where the programs are in the recruiting front. Calipari, who is arguably the best recruiter in the game right now, had 3 McDonald’s All-Americans on the floor (although Nerlens Noel would have been if not for a late reclassification). Matthew Mitchell? Mitchell had 5 McDonald’s All-Americans on the floor. Mitchell also just signed the top ranked recruit in the program’s history last weekend, inking 5th ranked Linnae Harper. Furthermore, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Kentucky were picked as the pre-season favorites to win the SEC title. For Kentucky’s women’s team, who has long been in the shadow of a Tennessee dynasty, the vote of confidence might be signaling a changing of the guard in SEC dominance. Mitchell has certainly put himself in position to be one of the major players year in and year out.
One of the most impressive things when it comes to Calipari and Mitchell, both larger-than-life personalities who can command the attention of a room and steal the show at any moment, is that the two are not competing with one another. The two feed off of each other, and Mitchell fully embraces the fact that Kentucky men’s basketball has and probably always will, be the face of the University’s athletic program. With that said, Mitchell is creating a brand for himself and his program– taking pages from Calipari’s book and being more than okay with the connection to the men’s program. The two have a great working relationship and have come off as nothing but supportive of one another any chance they get to bring each other up. The two constantly promote each other and each other’s success, although Mitchell seems to understand Calipari may not need much help in that department. To his credit, Mitchell has a sense of humor about it–as he has with nearly everything. “I think my relationship with Cal has helped him tremendously,” Mitchell joked. “He won the national championship last year and I’ve been working with him extensively on, really, every phase of the game and mainly on his public relations skills.”
The public relations sphere is one area in which both coaches have thrived in their time at Kentucky. Calipari has made the program so much more visible and accessible, not only on the national level, but on a more intimate level with the fan base. Calipari is an open book in a lot of respects, and never wastes an opportunity to put his program in the lime light. Mitchell is cut from the same fabric. He doesn’t hide his personality or his team’s, constantly finding ways to get his team’s name and personality out there as well. Fans of both the men’s and women’s programs are enjoying the atmosphere and accessibility being provided for them by both coaches. The support for both teams is at an all-time high.
More important than the magnetic personalities, flashy dance moves, all-access television shows or top-ranked recruiting classes, Matthew Mitchell and John Calipari are both winning. And they are winning a lot. The two combined to sweep the SEC regular season titles last year, and many of the individual coach/player awards as well. One team won a national championship, the other made it to the elite 8. Both enter this season comfortably ranked in the top 10, with teams loaded with talent. The attendance for both teams is as healthy as ever and the excitement surrounding the programs is at an all-time high. Pair that with a highly publicized (and will be even more highly publicized as it gets closer) double-header against Baylor in Cowboy Stadium next year, and it’s hard to imagine a more golden era for the collective state of basketball at the University of Kentucky.
Is there a better 1-2 punch, from success on the court to contagious personalities, than John Calipari and Matthew Mitchell in college basketball? I wouldn’t trade either. And how long until we see both programs featured in the Final Four at the same time? I give it 3 years, tops. Enjoy this golden era for both programs, folks.