It wasn't always Final Four trips and smiles for John Calipari. For much of the 2013-14 season, the Kentucky coach was mired in a season-long malaise, his team-building philosophy under heavy scrutiny as the Wildcats scuffled through what looked to be another disappointing campaign.
Calipari's freshmen, perhaps the most highly touted group of prep stars in the sport's history, just didn't get it. Perhaps Calipari didn't, either. After he got himself thrown out and skipped his postgame meeting with reporters following an embarrassing 72-67 loss to lowly South Carolina, Kentucky looked NIT-bound.
Many of Calipari's harshest critics, notably Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde, laid the coach, his team and the construction of the Kentucky way of life to waste. There would be no redemption for the sleazeball with the gladdest hands of the AAU circuit. Or so the thought went.
A little less than a month after that loss, one of the harshest criticized of those freshmen, guard Aaron Harrison, hit a season-defining three over the outstretched arms of Caris LeVert to send the Wildcats to the Final Four. Their journey was no easy one, either. A No. 8 seed, Kentucky went through No. 1 Wichita State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan in successive rounds. In what everyone called the Bracket of Death, Kentucky slayed dragon after dragon after dragon.
It was as much proof positive that Calipari's style could work as last season's first-round NIT exit was damning. When asked why it took so long for this highly touted roster to finally start meshing, Calipari told reporters that sometimes, when dealing with such young kids, that's just the way it is:
Every year it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out. It's not all them. They were trying. Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, all that stuff. When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier.
Odds are he won't need to have the same talk next season.
For all of the talk about Calipari's 2013 class, there is decidedly little with his latest batch of prep stars. Sure, the Wildcats have the second-best class in the nation. There is no lack of golden arches on their high school All-Star uniforms. But when it comes to national hype and intrigue, Trey Lyles, Karl Towns, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are no Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and James Young.
And that's just fine with them.
While the 2013 Kentucky class may forever be defined for its star power, another trait is beginning to show up for the 2014 boys: togetherness. The foursome, led by two high-potential bigs in Lyles and Towns, are constantly talking. Discussing what they need to do to play together. How they want next season to go. How to avoid the pratfalls that nearly cost this season's Wildcats their chance at Dallas.
"They talk on a regular basis," Tom Lyles, Trey's father, told Ben Roberts of the Herald-Leader. "And they're talking about learning from what they're watching the group do right now. And how they're coming together. And understanding that—if they're wanting to do something great—it's not about the individual, it's about the team."
Lyles, arguably the leader of the group already, already has plenty of experience with team building. He eschewed the allure of private basketball powers—the types of places on which Calipari has rebuilt the Wildcat program—to stay at Arsenal Tech, a public school with an anonymous national reputation. Lyles and his teammates went on to win a state championship—Arsenal Tech's first in more than a century.
Platitudes like "it's about the team" can be thrown around by anybody. I'm sure the 2013 class spent time clicking their thumbs in a group iMessage, too. Just because players talk on the phone does not automatically make them compatible on the court. Nor does Lyles seeming like an all-around good kid guarantee him playing time, a continued leadership role going forward or anything of the like.
These quotes—along with many others being thrown around from these incoming recruits—do, however, give me faith that these kids can integrate themselves early and ingratiate themselves to returning players.
Because, for the first time in a long time, there will be plenty of those next season. Randle has been as good as gone since his arrival, and despite an ankle injury likely keeping him out through the Final Four, Willie Cauley-Stein probably can't pass up the NBA again. Given they're both lottery picks and Calipari has a history of advising players to think of their family first, Kentucky family second, it's the right decision.
I'm not sure anyone else leaves—or at the very least should leave. Neither Harrison twin is a first-round pick based on their performance, though one or both could catch on at the end, Archie Goodwin style. Dakari Johnson isn't going anywhere. Marcus Lee was essentially nonexistent before Sunday afternoon. James Young has an interesting decision on his hands. Alex Poythress may go from potential one-and-done candidate to a four-year contributor at this rate.
Kids get agents and parents and leeches in their heads, but based on my evaluation, that's at least six rotation spots that should be wrapped up. There is no doubt going to be an adjustment period here, and the Wildcats' lack of an obvious primary star is only going to make that harder.
As cliche as it sounds and as early as it is to look ahead, next season's Kentucky team is going to have to feel and look like a veteran squad. No overreliance on a Randle type to draw defenders. Ulis, a diminutive point guard with veteran savvy but a still-growing body, will have to learn to work to succeed without the ball in his hands. Lyles will need to prove his advanced offensive skill set can instantly translate.
More than anything, though, the "process" Calipari talked about with this Final Four group cannot take as long. The margin for error is too thin—as is the patience for another difficult regular season.
It might work. It might be a disaster. But given what we've heard from Kentucky's incoming recruiting class, there may be no Calipari group that's ever been more ready to make the necessary sacrifices.
All recruit rankings and information is via 247Sports.
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