When John Calipari arrived at Kentucky a decade ago, he had a recruiting blueprint that was so simple in its concept, it was sort of amazing that no one had ever tried to pull it off before.
That concept? Rather than building a college basketball the team the traditional way, taking players and molding them over three or four years into a title contender (which was the way it was done back then) Calipari wanted to do the opposite. He wanted to stockpile the best players one after the other after the other, and make a run at a title every year. Then, after losing many of those players after one year, he’d recruit a new batch of superstars and try to do it again the following season.
People forget that before Kevin Durant and the Warriors or LeBron James and the Miami Heat, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Kentucky was the original “super team” in basketball.
Of course over time we’ve also realized just how hard it is to win with Calipari’s method at the college level. Sure, loading your roster up with the best players sounds good, but what few realized, is how challenging it is to take a whole new group of players, every single season and get them competing at the highest level. To figure out your player’s strengths and weaknesses on the fly, and doing it with egos and attitudes at play, with handlers and parents on the sidelines. And also doing it while playing a team game, and pursuing team goals like a national championship.
Since Calipari first initiated the plan, many have tried, and a few (most notably Coach K) have had success. But mostly, the college basketball world has slowly realized, that the one and done world just isn’t for everyone.
And if there was ever an example of just how hard it is to build teams based almost entirely on freshmen, we’re seeing it this season. Washington, Georgia and Memphis all brought in Top 12 classes nationally a year ago, highlighted by no fewer than three Top 100 prospects and at least one projected lottery pick at each school. Because of their recruiting prowess, all three entered the season with big-time expectations and dreams of a deep tournament run. Well, not sure if you’ve been paying attention, but all three have instead largely fallen flat on their faces, with Washington in last place in the Pac-12, Georgia in second to last place in the SEC, and Memphis on the wrong side of the bubble after a three-game losing streak.
Again, the one and done world simply isn’t for everyone. And if there was ever a season to learn that, it’s the 2019-2020 campaign.
Starting with Washington, their struggles aren’t so much about their “freshmen struggling” as it is, they have a knucklehead junior who messed everything up. I’m of course talking about Quade Green, who, regardless of what you think of his time at Kentucky, emerged as a very important piece for the Huskies. With Green in the lineup, Washington jumped out to an 11-4 start to the season, which included a victory over Baylor back in mid-November. Three months later, it is still the only loss on Baylor’s resume.
Yet after that 11-4 start, Green was ruled academically ineligible, a simply stunning turn of events that should never happen at a Power 5 basketball program (blame both Green and the coaching staff for allowing it to happen). And since Green flunked off the team, the Huskies are 1-10 overall, and again, in last place in the Pac-12.
Still, even despite Green’s departure it doesn’t change the fact that, with Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels – two Top 10 recruits who are projected as Top 20 NBA Draft picks – the Huskies simply shouldn’t be this bad. It also doesn’t change the fact that Hopkins has had trouble corralling in McDaniels and at one point was forced to bench him for erratic play. McDaniels has also dealt with maturity issues and gotten a few costly technical fouls throughout the season (if I’m going to criticize McDaniels, it’s probably worth nothing that Stewart has been, by all accounts, the consummate teammate and a guy who comes to play every single night)
At Georgia, well there is no built-in excuse, other than Tom Crean going full-on Tom Crean in Athens. Even with No. 2 ranked prosepct Anthony Edwards on the roster, anyone who followed Crean closely through the years knew that this might be coming. Historically, Crean’s best seasons always came with veteran teams filled with grinders, not flashy teams with star recruits.
Still, like Washington, you can’t use youth as an excuse for the Dawgs being this bad either. Following Georgia’s loss to Texas A&M this weekend, the Bulldogs fell to 12-13 overall, 2-10 in SEC play and are essentially wasting Edwards one year on campus. And while again, Crean will at some point inevitably blame youth and experience on the Bulldogs’ struggles, the bottom-line remains that this team has too much talent to be struggling as much as they are. In addition to Edwards, Georgia has three other Top 100 recruits, and certainly has more talent than many teams that they’re looking up at in the SEC standings. That includes the A&M team they lost to on Saturday, a team which was picked to finish 13th in the SEC in the preseason. Instead, Buzz Williams – who essentially has the same salary as Crean – has the Aggies at 6-6 in the conference overall, and is showing what a coach who earns his paycheck actually looks like.
What a $3 million/year coach looks like: Buzz Williams who, with a win over Georgia, is 6-6 in the SEC after being picked to finish 13th in the preseason
What a $3 million/year coach doesn't look like: Tom Crean, who falls to 2-10 in SEC play with the loss, 4-26 the last two yrs
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) February 15, 2020
And finally, there’s Memphis. Never forget that Penny Hardaway asked for “All the Smoke” in the preseason, and well, someone call a doctor, because the man appears to be dying of inhalation. Following a loss at UConn on Sunday, Memphis has now lost three straight and are just 5-7 in their last 12, after starting the year 12-1.
Now in Penny’s defense, there is a logical excuse for the Tigers’ struggles. Memphis of course could have never predicted that James Wiseman would leave the team mid-season following a suspension, nor that DJ Jeffries would get hurt. Which means the Tigers are down their first and third leading scorers from the beginning of the year.
At the same time, it’s hard to give Penny a pass either, for a few reasons.
One, Wiseman’s absence is largely Penny’s own fault (you know, the whole “paying Wiseman’s family to move across state” thin”) even if he could have never known Wiseman would leave the team mid-season. And even without Wiseman and Jeffries, this team still has three other Top 60 recruits as freshmen, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis and Lester Quinones, as well as two more just outside the Top 100 (Malcolm Dandridge and Damion Baugh). Which is the biggest problem for Memphis, and the biggest criticism for those looking at the program from the outside: Besides Achiuwa, can we really say any of the freshmen have even lived up to expectations, let alone exceeded them? You’ve also got to wonder if the top recruits are starting to question Hardaway as well, as Memphis has a grand total of zero players committed for the 2020 recruiting class. ZERO! This, just one year after signing the top class in the country.
Regardless, of the exact circumstances of each program, it doesn’t change the fact that each is among the most disappointing teams in college basketball, and it also highlights what we said at the top: It’s really hard to do what John Calipari (and to a smaller degree what Coach K) have done over the last decade and change.
We hear that both those guys “should win more” in the NCAA Tournament with all the talent that they have. Yet in the end, the tournament is a total crapshoot, one where a bad bounce, missed foul shot or twisted ankle can completely alter the trajectory of a season.
It’s also a testament to John Calipari and Coach K, that independent of what happens in the tournament, that their teams remain in the mix for the title every single season.
It isn’t easy to take a group of highly-ranked players, and to get them to play hard and play together, while chasing their individual dreams all within the context of the team goal.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Washington, Georgia and Memphis.
They’re three teams who are learning that the hard way.
Learning, that the one and done world simply isn’t for everyone.