Since the one-and-done rule was approved in 2006, a consensus has emerged in college basketball for how to succeed within it.
Elite programs want to -- heck, they have to -- recruit the best players in the country, even if it means those players are going to be gone before you know it. But you don't want to forfeit the benefits of experience and veteran leadership. To get that, you have to temper your top-level recruiting with good-but-not-one-and-done-good players in the hopes that they'll grow into productive and responsible veteran leaders in, say, two years' time. Perfect this balance, win basketball games. It's just that easy.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has seen your consensus recruiting strategy, and he's doubled down. Calipari recruited a host of one-and-dones in 2009, had a successful 2009-10 season, sent five players (three of which were freshmen) to the first round of the NBA draft, and reloaded with another young roster full of potential one-and-done talent. The implication is simple: Calipari's not worried about recruiting four-year players, or trying to hedge for veteran leadership. He wants all the best talent the country has to offer, because if that talent leaves, he knows he can recruit more.
Calipari hasn't exactly been bashful about that strategy, but it's noteworthy that he enumerated it as clearly as he did to Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis Tuesday. From Davis' summer camp coaching round up:
Still, don't expect Calipari to alter his recruiting philosophy anytime soon. He scoffed at my suggestion that he should look to recruit a few players who won't be one-and-done but can still contribute during a four-year career. "If you recruit guys who you know are going to be there for four years, you'll probably be in the NIT, and that's not a good thing at Kentucky," he said. "You recruit the best players you can, and if someone is going to take them in the first round, I tell them to go."
That, in very distilled form, is Kentucky's new recruiting strategy. It's brash, it's bold ... it's Calipari.
It also makes a certain amount of sense. Calipari's recruiting strategy is built on the NBA. Placing talent in the NBA is going to attract more talent, and once those players get to Kentucky, they're glad to know they're playing for a coach who not only doesn't try to discourage them from leaving school early -- as so many other coaches do -- but instead actively encourages them to leave UK and pursue their dreams. That is an attractive recruiting option for everyone, let alone the handful of one-and-done players who enter college hoops each year.
In essence, Calipari is making a bet. He thinks he can win a national title with talent and youth, veterans be damned.
I'm not sure that bet is a wise one. There is a lot of good veteran talent in the country in any given year; the distinction between "talented" and "veteran" isn't nearly as mutually exclusive as Calipari seems to think. One example (among many) is the 2010-11 Purdue Boilermakers, a team full of very talented four-year veterans. They won't be playing in the NIT any time soon.
Still, you can't fault Calipari for any lack of originality. He's doing something completely different. We use the word "innovation" often in basketball, often in reference to on-court strategy. But Calipari, for better or worse, is innovating too. The plan is in place. Now it has to work.