With Calipari at UK, the SEC will become a hardwood destination
New Kentucky coach John Calipari will bring one-and-done players to the SEC
While C-USA opponents didn't have resources to compete, SEC teams do
Calipari's arrival in Lexington will be felt around the entire conference
During a brief chat in a tunnel beneath Lucas Oil Stadium prior to Sunday's Midwest Region Final in Indianapolis, SEC commissioner Mike Slive mentioned that at the conference's spring meetings in May, he plans to press his basketball coaches and athletic directors to schedule better out-of-conference opponents. After an abysmal season for the conference in which just three teams made the NCAA tournament -- none seeded higher than eighth -- Slive concluded that the league that plays the best football in America needs to play better basketball.
Before a single schedule is set, Slive will get his wish. Kentucky's hiring of John Calipari from Memphis is the paradigm shift that will force SEC basketball programs to improve.
At Memphis, Calipari had a knack for recruiting the nation's best players. Unlike many SEC coaches, he didn't care whether those players planned to stay for one year or four. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey made for a fine nucleus, but Memphis never would have reached the NCAA final last year without one-and-done point guard Derrick Rose. This season, Memphis wouldn't have earned a No. 2 seed and reached the Sweet 16 without probable one-and-done guard Tyreke Evans. Calipari won't stop recruiting those players just because he's at Kentucky, and why should he? Coaching in a weak conference, he led the Tigers to a one or two seed in the tourney each of the past four years.
Calipari will improve the entire SEC because while Conference USA schools didn't have the resources to compete with him, SEC schools do. Florida coach Billy Donovan, who won national titles in 2006 and 2007 despite swearing off one-and-dones after Donnell Harvey and Kwame Brown (actually a zero-and-done), will not sit idly by while an eastern division rival amasses a stockpile of the nation's best players. Neither will Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. And each will have the full support of a wealthy athletic department behind him, which should make for a spectacular arms race.
Fueling the competition will be the league's new 15-year, $2 billion contract with ESPN. SEC basketball, which previously suffered from a series of horrendous TV deals, stands to gain the most from the added exposure. But that exposure is a double-edged sword. No one at LSU, Georgia or Alabama wants to see their team get destroyed on national television by Calipari's all-stars.
It should alarm SEC coaches that on Tuesday, two potential future Kentucky Wildcats sat behind a table on the University of Miami campus. Xavier Henry and Demarcus Cousins probably hadn't thought twice about college basketball's winningest program until this past weekend, but on the eve of the McDonald's All-American game, they heard about little else.
Henry, a 6-foot-6 wing, signed with Memphis last fall, but he said he has a written agreement with the school that allows him to receive a release from his letter-of-intent should Calipari leave. Cousins, who committed to Memphis earlier this month, is free to sign with any school next month.
"I'd consider everybody," Henry said. That includes Kentucky.
So, right off the bat, Calipari could grab two 2009 McDonald's All-Americans. That would double the total of the other 11 SEC schools combined (guard Kenny Boynton Jr. has signed with Florida). Even if Henry were to defect to Kansas, where his parents both played, Calipari remains in the hunt for Raleigh, N.C., point guard John Wall. Wall, the top-ranked guard in the class of 2009, is a near lock to go one-and-done.
So let's assume the excitement of Calipari's arrival entices Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks and forward Patrick Patterson to stay another season. Imagine this starting five being introduced before 23,000 screaming fans at Rupp Arena.
C -- Demarcus Cousins
PF -- Patrick Patterson
SF -- Ramon Harris
SG -- Jodie Meeks
PG -- John Wall
That lineup would be a nightmare for SEC coaches, who would have little choice but to change the way they recruit. Most have an aversion to one-and-done players, but if they can't beat Calipari, they'll join him. If they don't, their athletic directors will find someone who will.
Obviously, there are some red flags. When Calipari was at UMass, forward Marcus Camby took thousands from agents. That's nothing new in the SEC, where football stars Jevon Kearse, Johnny Rutledge and Reggie McGrew received cash from agent Tank Black while playing at Florida in the late '90s. Their coach at the time, Steve Spurrier, never was implicated in the scandal.
Also, there is the question of the influence of William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, the godfather of former Memphis player DeJuan Wagner and a major powerbroker in basketball circles. Wesley's exact role remains a mystery, so he'll naturally arouse suspicion the first time he shows up at Rupp. Kentucky, which has survived a point-shaving scandal in 1951 and improper benefits scandals in 1976 and 1989, would rather not even give the appearance of impropriety. But, since intense scrutiny of their relationship has yet to turn up any NCAA violations, Calipari would be a fool to cut off a man who has LeBron James and Jay-Z on speed dial.
So expect to see Wes at Rupp alongside some of the best players in America. If Calipari can keep Meeks, Patterson or both and lure even one or two of his Memphis recruits to Lexington, the Wildcats should compete for the SEC title in his first season. That should convince the rest of the league's coaches to raise their games on the court and on the recruiting trail. If that happens, a conference that got rich on the gridiron might turn into a power on the hardwood.
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