Coach Cal has also shown that he can get maximal production out of his guys, and his skill as both a motivator and an X’s-and-O’s coach plays a major role in keeping his teams on top.
As such, it’s fair to ask what makes Calipari so special? Is his recruiting the magic ingredient, or do his teams win more because of what he does for his players after they arrive on campus?
At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer that Calipari’s greatest asset is his recruiting ability. Every freshman class he’s brought to Kentucky has been ranked No. 1 in the nation by at least one of ESPNU, Rivals.com or Scout.com.
Part of the appeal of playing for Calipari is that recruits know how good he is for their chances of a one-and-done college career. Starting with Derrick Rose—when Calipari was still at Memphis—he’s had nine freshmen picked in the first round of the NBA draft, with at least one Top-10 pick in each of the last five drafts.
Obviously, that kind of talent makes it a lot easier to win basketball games, but it’s too simplistic to dismiss Calipari’s contributions on the sidelines.
In the first place, recruiting hordes of the nation’s best players means dealing with some very large egos in very large batches. Virtually every player Calipari brings to Kentucky was the greatest, most adored star on his high school team. Calipari manages to convince whole groups of these top dogs to play together as a team. What's more, as with Terrence Jones in 2011-12, he even convinces them to accept lesser roles than they'd had in previous college seasons.
In many ways, Calipari’s task is similar to what Phil Jackson faced in the NBA, when he tried to keep the inevitable personality clashes of a star-studded roster from interfering with on-court results. Jackson, too, has been dismissed as only able to win with elite players, but it’s a challenge not every coach can meet.
It’s also worth noting that replacing three or four or five starters every year is a major hurdle, no matter how high the caliber of the recruits coming in to replace them. Calipari not only knows how to get his guys to play together, he knows how to get to that point quickly—he doesn’t have time for anything else.
In addition, Calipari deserves some credit for his strategic ability and his game management. His dribble-drive motion offense hasn’t been as much of a focus since he left Memphis, but it does maximize one-on-one opportunities and allows his players take full advantage of mismatches against less impressive athletes.
Just as critically, Calipari’s extensive NCAA Tournament experience helps him prepare his teams for the postseason as well as any coach in the game. His teams have made it to at least the Sweet 16 every year since 2006, a span in which plenty of other coaches have seen immensely talented teams get upset.
At the end of the day, none of these assets can quite stack up to Calipari’s recruiting ability, because recruiting is the only area in which he’s definitively the best coach in the country right now. Still, he’s a much, much better coach on the bench than he’s sometimes given credit for.