ARLINGTON, Texas — Every now and then, even during this magical postseason run, John Calipari can’t help himself.
The Kentucky coach sits back and marvels not at how good the Wildcats are now, but about how good they could become.
“Can you imagine if I had this team for four years?” Calipari told Bleacher Report. “Actually, forget four years. What if I had it for two? Can you imagine how good we’d be?”
We’ll never know for sure with this year’s group, which could lose all five of its freshman starters to the NBA draft. But it may not be long before Calipari gets the chance to work with NBA-caliber players beyond one season.
After taking over for David Stern in February, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed in an interview with USA Today's Sam Amick a desire to change the league’s minimum age limit to 20 years old rather than the current minimum of 19, which was put in place eight years ago.
How would that affect Kentucky?
“It’d make them better,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Without question.”
Indeed, it's tough not to envision what this Kentucky squad would look like with Anthony Davis starting alongside Julius Randle in the frontcourt. Or perhaps Brandon Knight playing on the perimeter with the Harrison twins.
Davis (2012) and Knight (2011) both left school after just one year and are excelling in the NBA.
“Every year I just wait until the end of the season and see what’s left,” Calipari said. “Then I go from there. I’m not going to try to convince kids that should leave to stay.”
Granted, the Wildcats are certainly thriving under the current system. Calipari has guided his team to the Final Four three of the last four years, and each of the five teams he’s coached at Kentucky has been fueled by freshmen who spent just one season in college.
Ten of the 17 Wildcats drafted since Calipari’s arrival in 2009 have been first-year players.
Multiple times during the past two seasons, however, people have questioned whether Calipari was taking the right approach. Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament in 2013, and this season it lost 10 games and entered the postseason as a No. 8 seed.
Unlike last season, this year’s Kentucky squad jelled at just the right time and has been the most impressive team in the NCAA tournament.
But imagine if the Wildcats had an extra season to develop team chemistry. Think about what it would be like if Calipari had more time to get his players to embrace the importance of playing tough defense and sharing the ball.
How scary would it be if Kentucky played an entire season at the level it’s performing at now?
“We’ve got five months to instill stuff in our players that, realistically, should take years to ingrain,” Calipari said. “People think it should be easy because of our talent. But every single year, you’re coaching a new team, a totally different team.
“There’s no continuity, where older players are bringing the younger guys along. And every year, you’re playing a different style, because the players are all new. It’d be great to be able to coach them longer.”
Still, while Kentucky is at the forefront of almost every debate about the one-and-done rule, the Wildcats would hardly be the only school affected if things change.
“It could impact the whole power structure,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “Kentucky would get better, but other programs would too.”
Altman makes a good point.
Kentucky’s 2013 recruiting class featured six McDonald’s All-Americans. If each of them were forced to stay in school for two seasons, Kentucky wouldn’t have as many scholarships to fill the following year.
“As it is now, they plan for those guys to leave, so they’re able to start focusing on the next group of guys,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “So they continue to have a loaded freshman class year after year.
“If the rule changes, some of those (recruits) will sprinkle in to other places, because they’ll want major minutes that may not be available. Plus, (Kentucky) won’t have as many scholarships to give. It would even things out. A little bit.”
Pearl agreed. The former Tennessee coach said a change in the one-and-done rule would create more competition, both in recruiting wars and eventually on the court.
“I think it would make schools like Kentucky and Kansas better,” Pearl said. “It would enable them to be even more selective in recruiting than they are right now.
“But I also think there would be more competition. Since there won’t be the turnover, those other good players that are coming out would go elsewhere. There would be more high-level teams. So again, Kentucky and Kansas would be would be better, but there would be more teams like them.”
Until things change, Calipari will continue to use the one-and-done rule to his benefit, although he maintains he never tells a recruit to expect to leave after one season.
“There is no grand-scheme plan,” he said. “There is no plan to recruit kids that are going to leave after a year. I tell all these kids, ‘Don’t plan on leaving after a year. There’s no disappointment in staying three or four years.’ They’re all on different time frames. If it takes an extra year, what’s the problem?”
Calipari, of course, knew this would likely be Randle’s only year in college. Freshman James Young is also projected as a lottery pick, and the late-season surge by oft-criticized twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison make them potential one-and-done candidates too.
"Before the year everybody said eight guys were going to leave,” Calipari said. “Now they look at us and say it may be only two. What’s it going to be next week? Four? Five?
“I’ll just wait and see what decisions these kids make and deal with it. We could have a totally different team. Or, some of these guys could come back and we’ll add a few new faces to the mix. Then we’d really be good.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.
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