Last spring, after leading Kentucky to the Final Four as a freshman, point guard Brandon Knight spoke to coach John Calipari about turning pro. Knight was a sure NBA lottery selection, but not necessarily a top five pick, so Calipari had a sales job to do. It wasn't the sales job you might have expected. "He told me I would have to give him three good reasons why I would want to come back," says Knight.
In the end, Knight entered the draft, going eighth overall to Detroit, but Calipari had three good reasons not to worry: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, each one of this year's top 10 recruits.
In 2011--12 those three freshmen have each played more minutes than any other Wildcat. The result: No. 1--ranked Kentucky is in the middle of a 20-game winning streak and positioned as the favorite to win the national championship. It would be a first for Calipari, who has taken an old coaching axiom and turned it upside down. At Kentucky, the best thing about freshmen is that they get replaced by new freshmen.
Flash back six years to when the NBA instituted an age minimum, forcing the most pro-ready high schoolers to wait a year, often in college, before entering the draft. Many NCAA coaches have since complained that the rule creates systemic limbo; that they would rather have a player on campus for at least two years if he is going to come at all. Says Michigan State's Tom Izzo of the one-and-done trend, "That's not healthy for anybody."
Calipari might beg to differ. In three years in Lexington, he has handed 54% of his starting assignments to freshmen—and won 88% of his games, second only in that time to Kansas's Bill Self (whose freshmen have gotten 17% of the starts). Much like the kid who builds a tower of blocks just so that he can knock it down and build another, Calipari recruits stars with the tacit understanding that he will likely coach them for just one year.
"Now that model is his model," says ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep. "It's his brand."
Nobody in NCAA history has recruited as many great players in as short a span. Consider: In 32 years at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski has coached eight top five NBA picks. In the last four years alone, Calipari has coached five. That doesn't account for Davis, the assumed No. 1 overall pick this summer. And, when he leaves, Kidd-Gilchrist could be yet another top fiver. The 18-year-old told reporters last week that he planned to graduate from Kentucky, but in doing so acknowledged the perceived absurdity of his staying. "I don't know why y'all laughing," he kidded.
Calipari's one-and-done success began at Memphis, where in 2008 point guard Derrick Rose led the Tigers to the NCAA title game (that season was later vacated because of NCAA violations), then went No. 1 in the draft. The next year Memphis was 33--4 with freshman Tyreke Evans eventually replacing Rose at the point.
Lured the following year to Kentucky, Calipari took two key players from Memphis's top-ranked recruiting class, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, with him. Fourteen months later, after a 35--3 season that ended in the Elite Eight, a record five Wildcats, including four freshmen, were selected in the first round of the NBA draft, a day that Calipari would call "the biggest day in the history of Kentucky's program." He was hooked. Less than a week later he said, "It looks like we're always going to have a young team."
He can do that. Calipari, who declined to talk to SI, is a veteran coach who knows the importance of exposure to a blossoming lottery pick, having allowed a team practice in February to be broadcast on ESPNU. He has vacated two Final Four appearances (at Massachusetts and Memphis) but that means that recruits know his name. A few jokes about running an NBA feeder system won't change how he operates. At Kentucky he offers national recruiting cachet, and he is hampered only by a fan base with two requests: win, and don't lose.