What a difference one season can make. In July 2011, Kentucky head coach John Calipari was fielding questions about his incoming freshman class and whether or not they were good enough to win a national championship.
There were doubts about Anthony Davis' strength, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's offensive output and Marquis Teague's ability to run the point.
There were also lingering questions about the chances of Calipari finally winning that elusive NCAA championship. He had just assembled one of the greatest recruiting classes in history, and he convinced two star sophomores and a senior to return for the 2011-12 season. This was John's best opportunity to win the title, so what would happen if he fell short this year?
Fortunately for everyone involved, Coach Cal did not have to answer that question. His Kentucky Wildcats won the 2012 national title, finally establishing John as one of the premier coaches in college basketball.
In fact, this championship capped off one of the most incredible runs in Kentucky history as Calipari's first three teams advanced to an Elite Eight, a Final Four and are now NCAA champions. The Wildcats had yet to lose a home game at Rupp Arena in those three years. The Wildcats also won either the SEC season or tournament championship in each of Calipari's years at the helm.
There are many things that factor into John's immense success up to this point at Kentucky. Some of these are strengths that are shared by other coaches, but a few key aspects belong strictly to Calipari.
Perhaps, his most unique successful trait is his team-building philosophy. No other coach in America gathers as much talent on his roster as Calipari does. At the same time, no coach in America places freshmen in leadership roles as often as Calipari does.
Year in and year out, Cal revamps his roster and recruits the best freshmen in America to his team. He lands more 5-star prospects than any other coach, as evidenced by his recruiting record at Kentucky. At the same time, he forces his freshmen to play pivotal roles on the team, relying on their natural talent in place of experience.
This philosophy has turned Kentucky into a machine that pumps out more NBA prospects than any other program in any given year. The four-year starters have been rare in Lexington, having only been represented by the recent departure of Darius Miller. This choice to take talent over experience has been controversial, but it is how he prefers it.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
"But if the choice is talent or experience, I'm taking talent. Then you can blame me for us not winning. But I'm taking talent, that's just how I've been throughout my career. I'd rather have that than experience."
Because of his unique recruiting philosophy, Calipari needed a way to maximize the talent of his players while minimizing the necessity for experience. This leads into another successful trait that he possesses: a flexible playing style that adjusts to the roster at hand.
Unlike many top coaches in the nation, who employ a particular system and plug players into it, the Wildcats operate under the opposite way of thinking. Calipari will bring in a group of players and mold his system to fit their strengths, while covering up their weaknesses.
For example, the style of play has varied wildly with his first three Wildcat teams. The 2009 team featured big men DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson. Therefore, Kentucky ran most of their offense through the low post and crashed the boards on both ends of the court.
Even their guards, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, attacked the paint more often than they shot from the perimeter. No player was very effective from three-point range, so Calipari ran a style of play that catered to the team's strengths and minimized their weak points.
The 2010 Kentucky team was completely opposite. The only big men on the roster were Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones, and both players were capable of playing from the perimeter. The team's strength was its perimeter shooting, led by Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller.
Therefore, the team executed an effective pick-and-pop offense that placed the big men in the high post more often, allowing the guards to drive and kick for an open jump shot. Knight and Harrellson excelled at the pick-and-roll as well, since both of their defenders had to defend their outside shooting abilities.
In 2011, Calipari had a much more balanced roster that utilized more of the "dribble-drive" offense that he is known for. The team still had perimeter threats in Lamb, Miller and Kyle Wiltjer, but they also had great big men in Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were slashers who attacked the rim and either fed the post or kicked out to shooters.
This team also fared better in halfcourt, as Calipari had the team run it to near perfection and using their speed and size to their advantage. Also, Anthony Davis gave the guards a new weapon at their disposal: the high lob pass.
Davis caught everything thrown at him, so the slashers could draw attention at the rim and toss it up for a Davis slam.
By placing his players in a flexible system that allows players to play to their strengths and utilize their natural athleticism, Calipari always fields a team that's talented and effective. However, one of his most successful coaching traits is consistent with every team that he coaches: they excel on defense.
Take last season's team for example. The 2011-12 Kentucky squad set a NCAA record for blocks in a season. Anthony Davis led the way with 186 blocks, a freshman record, but it was the other contributions by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller that gave teams fits with their length.
His players will tell you that defense is stressed more often than offense in practice. According to a report from Jerry Tipton, UK players were already practicing defense before the season even started,
Calipari called for better defense against pick-and-roll plays and low-post scoring opportunities, plus, perhaps most glaringly, more efficient rebounding on the defensive end. In the Blue-White Scrimmage, there were 38 offensive rebounds.
"Against each other, the rebound attempts on defense were just awful," Calipari said. "Guys didn't even try to rebound defensively."
UK players noted Calipari emphasized defense in recent practices.
"You can be a good team if you're a good offensive team," Wiljter said. "If you're good defensively, then that's how you win championships."
Later in the article, Calipari focused on the defense from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,
Kidd-Gilchrist acknowledged how he can set a tone defensively.
"That starts with me," he said. "I've got to bring it."
Apparently, Calipari has instilled or reinforced a defense-first mentality in Kidd-Gilchrist.
"That's all he talks about," the freshman said.
All of these coaching traits are big reasons why he has become such a successful head coach. However, all of those on-the-court philosophies translate into Calipari's most successful off-the-court trait: helping his players reach major life goals.
Obviously, this is not unique to Calipari, as every college head coach wants their players to succeed in life. However, John focuses more on allowing his players to move on then most coaches do.
Specifically, this is referring to the NBA or playing professional basketball overseas. When you're recruiting the nation's most talented players, the majority of them are good enough to play in the NBA one day. That's their main life goal from a young age.
For many of these athletes, playing in the NBA is more than a life goal. It's a necessity for players who come from broken homes or low-income families. They need to earn a NBA salary in order to help their parents and siblings get their feet on the ground.
Calipari embraces the NBA dream more than perhaps any other major college coach. He's not an advocate of the "one-and-done" rule, but he has embraced it as long as it's the current system in place. He welcomes players with open arms who want to make it to the NBA, as long as they are what Coach Cal refers to as "givers, not takers."
This has led to the need for Calipari to reload his roster every season, as the majority of his talented freshmen leave for the NBA. He's honest with each player and actively seeks information and advice from multiple sources in an attempt to accurately project his player's true draft stock.
For players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Brandon Knight, Calipari gave them the option of returning but advised them to enter the draft and earn a living achieving their dreams. All three of these players were selected among the top eight picks in their respective drafts, and Kidd-Gilchrist hopes to join the other two as NBA All-Rookie selections.
Calipari had some interesting quotes about his draft philosophy published on his website CoachCal.com. First, he spoke about his openness and honesty with each potential draftee,
“Every kid is on a different timetable, and when I coach young people, it’s not about me,” Calipari wrote. “It’s about them. … I would love to coach all of these guys for four years and have them earn a college degree in four years, but if they have an opportunity to reach their dreams, I will not be the person to hold them back, nor will I let anybody at this university or in my program do it.”
In the same publication, Calipari had this to say about the decision process he wants his players to make regarding college and the NBA draft,
“I don’t chase kids out, but I make them think through why they want to do what they want to do,” Calipari wrote. “They’re not just going to say I’m leaving or I’m staying. They’ve got to talk to me about it. … If one of our kids wants to say he’s coming back next year and the year after that and even the year after that, that’s fine – I’m not going to stop him. But I am going to make sure he’s thought about the reasons.”
As you can see, John Calipari is truly a player's coach, and the players have flocked to him during his entire coaching career. His success at recruiting and developing the best players in the nation is at an all-time high at Kentucky, as he has led the program back to its former status among college basketball's elite.
Going forward, Calipari will continue adopting new practices to keep the wins and players, but it is his core successful coaching traits that have led to his on-court success and championship-winning resume.