John Calipari's Best Decisions Since Joining Kentucky

Bobby ReaganFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2012

John Calipari's Best Decisions Since Joining Kentucky

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    John Calipari came to the Bluegrass State with high expectations following the disaster known as Billy Gillispie. During his first three-plus years in Lexington, he's compiled a record of 108-17, including two trips to the Final Four and a National Championship.

    Calipari, known as a great recruiter, has proven he is one of the greatest all-around coaches in the game right now as well. There have been numerous little things that Calipari has done during his time with Kentucky, but these are the best that have made the Wildcats who they are.

6. His Handling of DeAndre Liggins

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    If a picture says a thousand words, there would need to be a slideshow for Liggins' career at Kentucky alone. He spent his freshman year under Gillispie and got off to a rough start to say the least with Calipari.

    For reasons unknown, Calipari benched Liggins for the first nine games of his sophomore year. That could be the exact thing Liggins needed, however. He was able to bounce back from the Calipari doghouse to become one of the most respected and hard-working players in the Calipari era.

    Liggins played a vital role in Kentucky's run to the Final Four as a junior when he averaged over eight points per game and was selected the Southeastern Conference's Defensive Player of the Year.

    More importantly, Calipari was able to turn Liggins' life around, as Liggins went from a headcase, troubled player to the 53rd overall selection of the 2011 NBA draft.

5. Keeping Josh Harrellson

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    The emergence of Josh Harrellson under Calipari could be considered pure luck due to the ineligibility of Enes Kanter before Harrellson's senior season. However, anyone that has watched a Calipari-coached team knows he prefers a big man that can run the pick-and-pop, and Harrellson was known for his three-point shooting.

    After Calipari took over for Gillispie, most expected Harrellson to transfer due to an expected lack of playing time, which he experienced as a junior when he was behind DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Perry Stevenson.

    However, Harrellson waited his turn and blossomed into arguably UK's most important player during his senior year. He led the SEC in rebounding, averaging almost nine rebounds per game as a senior.

    Harrellson was eventually drafted 45th overall in the 2011 draft.

4. Bringing Back NBA Players During the Lockout

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    The NBA lockout may have been the best thing for Calipari and his national championship squad. The Oklahoma City Thunder and former UK stars Rajon Rondo, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, as well as LeBron James, made the trip to Lexington to play against Calipari's team.

    Cal's team of stars getting a chance to gel together while playing against the world's best helped make the transition to a national championship team. Players like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones got a chance to play together and get used to competing against talent.

    The confidence of running against the NBA's best helped the Cats to a 36-2 season.

3. A Player's First Program

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    Calipari says it time and time again. "This is a players first program."

    He proves it year after year as well, sitting with his talented underclassmen, usually freshman, at each NBA draft after encouraging them to go pro. He knows the system makes players play in college for a year so Calipari makes sure to get the most out of his players for that one year, prepping them for the NBA.

    He's often said, with much chagrin to Big Blue Nation, that he doesn't have a player drafted he's failed as a coach, even if they win the national championship. Calipari is about changing the players' lives for themselves and their families, not just about a national championship.

    While most fans would disagree with that, it's appealing to high school seniors who want to play for a coach that won't hold them back. Calipari is able to recruit the best high school players because they know he will be there for them with his honest opinion when it comes time for the NBA draft.

    They also know that his system, both on the court and off the court, will have them prepared for life in the NBA.

2. Hiring Kenny Payne

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    When Calipari hired Kenny Payne as an assistant coach, it didn't seem like that big of a deal. However, Payne's importance at Kentucky has been very underrated.

    Payne is vital in the development of the players, including Willie Cauley-Stein this year. He is known for working one-on-one with the players to develop their weaknesses, whether it is shooting or low-post moves.

    Payne has been so important to Kentucky that he was in the running for the Mississippi State head coaching job last year despite having no head coaching experience.

    Payne has been vital in recruiting as well, helping land the number one recruiting class in both 2011 and 2012.

    Until Calipari and Kentucky lose Payne to an eventual head coaching job, he will be one of the main reasons Kentucky is able to not only recruit the best, but develop the best players within their system.

1. Getting John Wall to Kentucky

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    There's the quote that "once is a fluke, twice a trend," which could have been for Calipari. However, it wasn't Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans that got the ball rolling. It was the commitment of John Wall for Calipari's first year that helped Kentucky turn into the powerhouse it currently is.

    Wall led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight performance before being upset by West Virginia and then becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

    The commitment of Wall helped land Eric Bledsoe and keep Patrick Patterson around for his junior year to help Kentucky to an SEC Championship. More importantly, it showed that Calipari's system works in a major conference as well, not just in Conference USA with Memphis.

    The play of Wall allowed Calipari to then recruit and land Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague, Ryan Harrow and Andrew and Aaron Harrison.

    While Calipari can take a lot of credit, as he should and deserves, for the high recruiting classes, the importance of John Wall to Kentucky can't be taken lightly.