From the very moment that John Calipari took the job at UK, one mentality and one mentality only has dominated the culture around the program: PLAYERS FIRST. It has been a rousing success too. That motto and with Calipari behind it, combined with the legacy of the UK program and passion of the fanbase, has led to the greatest run of talent in UK history. Having great talent has then equated to great amounts of winning on the court. Plus, up to this season, having that high level of talent has not correlated into any serious ego problems off the court. Some guys have flamed out and disappointed on the court, but we haven’t had any real issues off the court. That is, until this season and the Jarred Vanderbilt issue. I think the Players First culture is entirely to blame for this problem.
If we were unclear about the actual status of Jarred Vanderbilt and his injury, you probably couldn’t say this. But Calipari himself has said that Vanderbilt is ready to go. He’s medically ready to go but we still don’t see him on the court and nobody can seem to explain why. Vanderbilt is basically holding Cal hostage on when he will or won’t play. That’s not a healthy quality in a program, in my opinion. Of course at the end of the day, only Jared Vanderbilt (or any player) can say yes or no on if they will play. UK (or any school) wouldn’t look good to threaten to pull the scholarship or kick off any kid who is healthy but won’t play. But I am not sure this problem exists at a school that doesn’t tout itself and promote at all times that it is Players First.
Now let’s be honest: Players First brings in the high levels of talent that UK has gotten over the years. So that’s the positive. But the negative is that these players are not really as concerned with the University of Kentucky basketball program as much as themselves and their future. You might argue that is the case at every high major basketball program but I would counter with at Kentucky, it is amplified. In my opinion, it should be a 50-50 deal. On the one hand, of course you should be concerned with your future above all else. But on the other hand, the University of Kentucky is paying you to attend their school to further help that future. I believe you owe them an honest effort for that payment. I don’t think Jarred Vanderbilt, based on all recent reports and comments, is giving an honest effort that UK deserves.
At this point, let me be clear. For the 90% of players that have come to UK under John Calipari, they have found the balance. Almost all the guys have come to love the program, play hard for the program, and respect the program. That has been proven by how much these NBA superstars still rep Kentucky and come back to games all the time. The Players First mentality has been 90 percent good. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect and I think we now see what the drawback is. When the right set of circumstances occur, the almost selfish nature of promoting Players First can bite the program. This team is very close to being very good. A guy like Vanderbilt, or what we think his talent can be, could be the guy to push this team over the top. Maybe we’ll still get to see that supposed talent before the season is over but clearly something strange is going on here and you have to have your doubts on if he’ll ever play and if he does what impact he could possibly have.
The program has essentially been created around the concept of the player and his development mattering more than the team and winning in the short term. The idea is if you bring in enough top talent and develop them individually, the winning will come naturally. But now we have a healthy player sitting on the bench while his teammates have ridden a roller coaster of a season without him. Does Jarred Vanderbilt actually care about how this season plays out? Doesn’t seem so to me. And you have to admit, when players are told that they should consider themselves always first, you can begin to see where that mentality came from.