Everybody wants to be like Kentucky nowadays

John Calipari isn't afraid to put on a show. It's all part of the atmosphere at Kentucky. Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- John Calipari leans back in the black leather chair jammed into his makeshift office -- a temporary home while his main one in the Joe Craft Center undergoes an overhaul -- and shakes his head after another request from a friend arrives in a text:

Could you call Drake for me?

"I can't," he says to everyone in the room. "I just called Drake, and I called Future for Aaron Harrison."

For the past seven years, the game's most charismatic figure and pioneer of the one-and-done craze has owned the most powerful phone in college basketball.

With one call, he can reach your favorite hip-hop star. In August, he used that phone to call young NBA stars, former Kentucky football standout Jared Lorenzen and other popular figures who have ties to the Lexington area to invite them to play in the inaugural Coach Cal Celebrity Softball Game.

The event raised six figures for victims of the summer flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Throughout Calipari's reign at Kentucky, he has also grabbed his phone to text a fleet of five-star studs who have often replied with some variation of "I'm coming to Kentucky, coach."

He's assembled ESPN.com's No. 1 recruiting class five times since 2009. That first one, in 2009, was the year future NBA all-stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins arrived. The Wildcats boast the top incoming class this season, too. In two of the past three years, however, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski's haul of talent topped Kentucky's.

"We're in competition," Calipari said. "We're competing. Not really for every kid. There are kids I think should go to Duke that should not come here. I'm fine with that. I mean there are other kids that they're the kind of kids that need to come here and do their thing. We get those kids. We've missed on a few kids to them. But we've missed on a few kids to Kansas, and we've missed on a few kids to Michigan State, and we've missed on a few kids to North Carolina, and we've missed on a few kids to Syracuse. We don't get every kid. Just how it is."

And that's the first thing any college basketball fan must understand about this season.

Yes, it's about Villanova's fight to win back-to-back national championships and Josh Jackson's bid to lead Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 title and Arizona's Sean Miller's push for his first trip to the Final Four and UCLA's Steve Alford's job and the NBA prospects who could save it.

But everything about college basketball in 2016-17 begins -- and could end -- with the Duke-Kentucky cage match for supremacy on the court and in the eyes of America's most promising recruits.

In the past few weeks, Kentucky has hosted a two-day, NBA-style combine -- the event aired on ESPNU -- for the third consecutive season. But now, for the first time, Duke will launch a pair of Calipari-style sessions -- a source says the school is calling the event a "practice" in front of NBA scouts and execs -- to give pro power brokers a chance to see the impressive talent on Duke's roster before Krzyzewski blocks NBA folks from subsequent practices in 2016-17.

The battle between Duke and Kentucky, however, extends beyond subtle swipes.

This is a fight.

And Calipari intends to win.

But how?

By touting Kentucky as the place where all the cool kids -- and future millionaires -- shine throughout their six-month stints in college basketball. Want to face good competition and earn an NBA contract before you finish second semester? Well, come to Kentucky, birthplace of the one-and-done movement.

This past Friday's Big Blue Madness season kickoff featured appearances by John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Willie Cauley-Stein and other former Kentucky stars in town for a Rupp Arena exhibition game between the Sacramento Kings and the Washington Wizards. The school reportedly paid Michael Buffer $15,000 to emcee the event, which also included a "Welcome to the Family" Jumbotron video anchored by 13 former Wildcats who praised the program.

According to ESPN.com's Jeff Borzello, Kentucky hosted 10 five-star recruits over the weekend.

"You come here as a recruit," Wall told CoachCal.com, "how can you say no?"

And that's why Calipari remains optimistic about the future of the program. Not even Duke can match his NBA success rate.

"You're not gonna do what we do better than we do it," Calipari said. "Even if you're doing what we do, you're not gonna do it better. I'm absolutely convinced of that."

'It took Duke to do it for it to become OK'

Once considered the game's biggest headache by many, the one-and-done pool's potential and persistence lured other coaches to the altar where they gradually converted and began to accept its permanence and the benefits for their respective programs.

Krzyzewski's run to the 2015 national championship with a team led by freshmen Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow seemed to stamp the one-and-done market's normalcy and newfound appeal.

"It took Duke to do it for it to become OK," Calipari said. "And that's, everybody knows ... I'm not saying it to be nasty or mean. It is what it is. The minute that happened, they said, 'You know, Coach K adjusted to the times,' and it was great."

The diversification of the one-and-done culture complicated Calipari's perennial rule over the field. Five-star center Marques Bolden picked Duke over Kentucky this summer. Josh Jackson, the No. 1 recruit in the 2016 class pursued early in the process by Kentucky, chose Kansas. DeAndre Ayton, the No. 1 recruit in the 2017 class, per ESPN.com, recently committed to Arizona.

"Kentucky's pitch was just the NBA thing," said Hamidou Diallo, ranked 11th in the 2017 class by ESPN.com, during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Duke's pitch was, if you come to Duke, you're going to be set for life. It's more than just basketball. [John Calipari's] pitch was he gets guys ready for the next level. Look at the numbers -- it shows. It's the best place for you if you want to make it to the NBA. Both pitches are appealing. It's just a hard decision. I've got a lot of schools recruiting me, a bunch of schools capable of taking me to the NBA."

If he's ever felt threatened by this new reality, Calipari would never admit it. This is the same coach who denied that his blog that followed Diallo's comments (he wrote he'd never promise a recruit he'd be "set for life" if he picked Kentucky) entailed a reaction to Duke's pitch.

"I do not spend much time worrying about any other program, including Duke or Mike [Krzyzewski] or Rick [Pitino]," Calipari said. "I'm not worried about those guys. This job here ... you can't do it worrying about other guys."

But it's also clear Calipari has made the advancement and preservation of the Kentucky one-and-done machine his greatest offseason priority. And Duke remains the only adversary capable of getting in the way.

This summer, Calipari asked each assistant to create three new ideas to help the Wildcats maintain their spot at the top of the game and the recruiting rankings. He told ESPN.com he's concerned about "landmines" other schools might use in home visits to hurt Kentucky's chances of luring a prospect.

And late last month, he made former analytics guru and special assistant Joel Justus a full-time assistant -- he'll replace John Robic -- who will focus on high school freshmen and sophomores, because "we became so fixated on trying to replace players each year that we weren't touching some of the younger kids and were coming in late."

"You want to dive right when they think you're diving left," Calipari said.

The changes and tweaks could help, not that Kentucky needs much. The Wildcats, led by five-star prospects Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox, will enter this season with a top-three preseason ranking. And Calipari will likely snatch a handful of the top-25 prospects from the 2017 class. Again.

He'll woo those youngsters with the same claim he has employed since Wall and Cousins became the first and fifth picks, respectively, in the 2010 NBA draft: No school can offer young prospects a better experience.

In Lexington, the one-and-done culture Calipari built is upheld by an entire community that has learned to embrace its favorite, albeit temporary, stars and despise its most impactful rival.

"I hate Duke," said Lincoln Hendricks, a 32-year-old Kentucky fan and sales executive. "I've got the shirt that says, 'I still hate Laettner,' and I do. I bet we hate Duke more than Duke cares about us. I don't think that we're on Duke's radar. I think Duke talks about [North] Carolina quite a bit. But I don't think ... we're not relevant [to them], and I think that pisses us off. They ought to hate us because we certainly hate them."

'Us and them'

With one deep shot to center field, Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns won the home run derby at the Coach Cal Celebrity Softball Game at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.

The August event, along with the John Calipari Fantasy Experience ($10,495 registration fee paid by dozens of grown men who wanted the Captains' Club Upgrade which included a private workout and meeting with the coach), raised more than $1.5 million for multiple charities in the area and $300,000 for victims of flooding in Baton Rouge.

Former Wildcats standouts Nerlens Noel (Philadelphia 76ers), Andrew Harrison (Memphis Grizzlies) and Terrence Jones (New Orleans Pelicans) joined Towns at the event. All three proved they picked the right sport after they botched multiple throws and catches in the outfield during a game viewed by thousands of Kentucky fans who hounded the foursome for pregame autographs and selfies.

"[The adoration] surprises me sometimes because you hear stories sometimes about fan bases not liking people because they leave early or don't feel like they accomplished a lot," said Towns, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year. "Not even for me, for anybody, whether it be the star player or the last player on the bench, the reception they give you when they step through these streets just shows how great our fan base really is."

In all, 21 Kentucky players under Calipari turned pro after their freshman seasons and earned guaranteed money as first-round picks.

Together, the four NBA players who participated in the charity game made more than $12 million combined from their respective NBA franchises a season ago. That remains the most pivotal element of Calipari's pitch. The Kentucky mantra encourages young athletes to leave after brief stays in Lexington, excel at the next level and return as heroes with a true bond to the community.

"It's just fantastic for these fans to really understand the bigger picture of a young athlete's life and wanting to go on and fulfill his dream, and them really supporting it and knowing Cal's gonna get another five to six real studs to come in," Noel said.

That's the norm now at Kentucky but still rare for most top-25 programs -- schools that fit underneath Calipari's they umbrella.

To Calipari, the word "they" is not a person or a thing. It's not even tangible most times. But it's a powerful word, the pronoun he uses to draw the line between Kentucky and anything that might disrupt its plight.

Sometimes, they will encompass the haters who once doubted him. Or the NCAA. Other times, it's the kids who would rather play for a school that will give them 30 shots a game and elevate them to BMOC (big man on campus) status the day they arrive.

In recent years, he admits, Duke has become his most significant they.

"It's us and them," Calipari said. "And so, it is what it is. We're that team. They believe they're that team. And we get recruits. They get recruits."

One of his advantages over Krzyzewski is the media megaphone following every move he makes in a state that lacks a captivating professional franchise. The nearby Cincinnati Bengals and Reds don't fit that profile most years.

"I don't read the papers, I don't listen to radio," said Calipari, who has 1.5 million followers on Twitter. "I tweet, Facebook, website, but guess what? Do I look at any response? Have I ever looked at a response? I wouldn't know how to get in. So I paint the picture I want. I hope you like it, but if you don't, I don't read about it anyway."

The media attention helps Calipari extend the fence around the program and create the notion that Kentucky is always under attack. It's a unifying ploy.

"He kept everything close," said Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who helped Kentucky win a national title in 2012. "Whatever he said, it was always between him and the team."

Back in Calipari's office, Marcus Lee -- the same Marcus Lee who transferred to Cal after last season -- enters and embraces his former coach.

"Hey," Calipari says, gesturing to Eric Lindsey, the school's associate director of media relations. "Tweet this: 'I'm sad to see Marcus Lee go, but I'll be rooting for him.'"

Then, Towns arrives and sits down to chat with Calipari. Kidd-Gilchrist poked his head into the room earlier after a workout with assistant Kenny Payne, whom the school will pay $900,000 per year as part of his new contract.

"Yo," Calipari says to Kidd-Gilchrist, who last year signed a $52 million extension to remain with the Charlotte Hornets. "I'm here for you if you need me."

"I know," Kidd-Gilchrist says.

"And if you change your phone number ..." Calipari adds without finishing his sentence.

"Appreciate you," Kidd-Gilchrist says. "I love you, man."

"Love you," Calipari says.

Before Calipari's elite freshmen turn pro, they also go to class. Kentucky has posted a perfect APR score (1000) over the past three years. He provides "lifetime" scholarships and asks his former players to finish their degrees. Dakari Johnson, who played on the 38-1 squad in 2014-15, has re-enrolled to continue his studies. Brandon Knight will do the same soon, Calipari said.

Through the school, the community and the coach, former players remain connected to Kentucky. That tenet helped Krzyzewski build a Duke program that has flourished since the 1980s. It's a trait that impresses Calipari.

"They've made [the rivalry] bigger than it is," Calipari says. "Look, I respect Duke's program. When you do something 40 years, 40 years, at the level they've done it ... and they've been one of those programs where even in the down years, see they didn't care when they were down, they're still trying to beat them because it was Duke. ... Incredible, incredible."

Yet, he's not here to praise Duke. That's not how college basketball works. That's not how the vicious recruiting world works. That's not how the battle to rule the one-and-done era will work, either.

Calipari is here to beat Duke -- in the living rooms of America's best prep players and perhaps on a court in Phoenix next April at the Final Four -- and protect his place in the one-and-done chapter of college basketball which he has dominated.

"I don't see someone saying, 'Well, we're gonna do what he does,' -- listen to me -- 'every year,'" Calipari says. "Doing it once, OK, do it once. You may be lucky, you may not be lucky, but do it once. But to do it every year this way, you know ... You almost have to accept it and want it and cheer for the guys to leave, try to educate the ones that shouldn't, that even if they leave, you still help them, you're still there for them."