College Basketball Bailout: Restoring the Kentucky Wildcats

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College Basketball Bailout: Restoring the Kentucky Wildcats
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

This is the second part in a series designed to examine high-profile college basketball programs that are in need of a bailout. The first part of this series looked at the Arizona Wildcats.

For a team that didn't even make this year's NCAA tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats received as much, if not more, coverage during and after the tournament than the recently crowned national champion North Carolina Tar Heels.

That's what happens when you're Kentucky and you hire John Calipari as the new men’s basketball coach.

In 1998, Kentucky, under first-year head coach Tubby Smith, ascended to the top of the college basketball world by winning their seventh national championship.

But the problem for many in the Bluegrass State is the Wildcats haven’t been back.

Since the last banner-hanging ceremony, Kentucky has advanced to five Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights.

They’ve captured four regular season SEC titles, along with four SEC Tournament championships.

In that time frame, eight Kentucky players—Kelenna Azubuike, Keith Bogans, Joe Crawford, Chuck Hayes, Jamaal Magloire, Randolph Morris, Tayshaun Prince, and Rajon Rondo—have all cashed NBA paychecks.

Current players Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson have both declared for this year’s NBA Draft. To date, neither player has hired an agent; therefore, both are eligible to return to school.

Certainly, most programs in the country would be thrilled to have Kentucky’s résumé of the past 11 years.

Most programs aren’t Kentucky, though.

During Smith’s nine seasons as coach, Kentucky was always good, but rarely great.

When Smith appeared to have the makings of a great team, they faltered.

After winning the SEC regular season and tournament championships and earning a No. 2 seed in the 2000-01 tournament, the Wildcats lost in the round of 16.

Two years later, Kentucky again won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and earned a No. 1 seed. But they bowed out in the Elite Eight.

The next season, the Wildcats once again were a No. 1 seed; however, they were upended in the second round of the tournament.

Smith departed Lexington after the 2006-07 season, which led to Billy Gillispie’s hiring.

Under Gillispie, Kentucky made the NCAA tournament as a mere No. 11 seed his first year and missed the tournament altogether in his second, and last, season.

That was the first time Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament since 1991, when the school was on probation.

So, what’s in the bailout package for the ‘Cats?

Kentucky is synonymous with college basketball excellence. A program with the Wildcats’ pedigree needs a head coach with just as much panache.

Athletic director Mitch Barnhart certainly found his man in Calipari.

Calipari would be comfortable shaking hands and kissing babies whether he’s coaching in Rupp Arena or running for Mayor of Lexington. At Kentucky, the head coach needs to be part coach, part politician, and part schmoozer.

The last big name head coach of the Wildcats was Rick Pitino. Calipari brings as much flair with almost as impressive a résumé as the former Kentucky, and current Louisville, coach.

In college basketball, no matter how well the head man can "X" and "O", if a coach can’t recruit worth a lick, he’s not long for his job.

Exhale Wildcat fans, because if there is one thing Calipari was put on this Earth to do, it is recruit.

A scan of the Memphis rosters for this decade reads like a who’s who of college basketball: Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey, Darius Washington, Jr., Rodney Carney, and Dajuan Wagner all suited up for the Tigers. Kendrick Perkins and Amar'e Stoudemire committed to Memphis, but entered the NBA Draft instead.

Prior to departing Memphis for Kentucky, Calipari had lined up one of the top recruiting classes in the country, headlined by Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins.

Cousins followed Cal to Kentucky, but Henry opted to sign with Kansas.

When Cal was at UMass, he landed such studs as Marcus Camby, Donta Bright, and Lou Roe.

Simply put, Calipari could sell sand to a desert country, so recruiting kids with NBA talent to a school like Kentucky should be the least of his challenges.

Calipari’s first Kentucky recruiting class consists of Cousins, center Daniel Orton, small forward Darnell Dodson, and shooting guard Jon Hood.

Dodson, from Miami-Dade Community College, is a former Memphis recruit who also followed Calipari to Kentucky. Orton and Hood previously committed under Gillispie.

According to Rivals.com, Cousins and Orton are five-star recruits, while Dodson and Hood are four-stars.

Perhaps Calipari’s most challenging recruiting sales pitch will be directed at Patterson and Meeks.

Both have some NBA skills; however, one more year of college basketball certainly couldn’t hurt either player. Neither Meeks nor Patterson is a lock for the first round of the draft.

Meeks is a junior, while Patterson is a sophomore. Should both players choose to come back, Calipari would have the necessary upperclassman leadership his band of newcomers will need.

In order to shore up the backcourt, Calipari is involved with two of the top remaining uncommitted point guards in the country.

John Wall of North Carolina and Eric Bledsoe of Alabama are both five-star recruits, and each has Kentucky on his list of schools.

Wall is Rivals’ No. 1 ranked recruit in the country, while Bledsoe checks in at No. 23.

If Calipari can ink one of those floor generals to go along with his current class, and if either Meeks or Patterson or both return to school, Kentucky will surely be ranked in the preseason polls. A return trip to the NCAA tournament would be inevitable.

Of even greater importance than securing the current recruiting class is to make inroads with the 2010 class.

Rivals.com currently shows no 2010 prospects committed to the Wildcats.

In all probability, Kentucky will suffer heavy NBA defections at the end of the 2009-2010 season, should Patterson return and if Wall commits. Meeks (if he returns) will be a senior, and Cousins is surely a one-and-done candidate.

Having a talented roster is great. Beating other talented teams is what really generates enthusiasm in a program.

The Wildcats will have some excellent opportunities to do so next season. Three of those chances come in the out-of-conference slate.

Kentucky and Connecticut are set to square off in the SEC-Big East Invitational at Madison Square Garden in December, in what is sure to be a big-time clash between two coaches with enormous egos.

Dating back to Calipari’s days at UMass, it is safe to say that he and Jim Calhoun aren’t exchanging fruitcakes at Christmas every year.

The game is scheduled for Dec. 9. A win here thrusts Kentucky back into the national spotlight.

The Wildcats have played the North Carolina Tar Heels the past nine seasons and are scheduled to do so again next year when the Heels pay a visit to Lexington.

Kentucky won the first four matchups but has dropped the last five. What better way to reestablish relevancy than to defeat the defending national champions?

The biggest non-conference game of the year for the Wildcats will be when the Louisville Cardinals, led by former coach Rick Pitino, come calling.

Not only will this game be the yearly battle for state bragging rights, but, like he’ll do with Calhoun, Calipari will also renew hostilities with Pitino, the man who helped him land the UMass job.

Kentucky has won six of the past 10 meetings between these two schools, but they’ve been on the short end of the last two. Calipari would like nothing more than to reverse that trend at Pitino’s expense.

Calipari must also reestablish Kentucky’s dominance in the SEC.

The collapse of the Wildcats has coincided with the rise of the Florida Gators.

Though Florida is coming off two straight NIT appearances, the Gators did win back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.

Over the last 10 seasons, Kentucky leads the series with Florida, 12-10. But their record against the Gators in the past five years is only 3-8.

Florida is not the only SEC team doing damage in the league.

Tennessee, under the guidance of Bruce Pearl, has emerged as a conference power.

The two annual games with the Volunteers will also make for sideline drama as Pearl is yet another coach that has a rocky relationship with Calipari.

Will Kentucky once again become relevant in the college basketball world and return to its past glory?

Given Calipari’s ability to recruit, motivate, and coach, it’s only a matter of time before another national championship banner will hang from the Rupp Arena rafters.

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