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Why do so many players leave the UK Basketball program after two years?

Keldon Johnson (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

During a press conference Kentucky coach John Calipari was explaining why followers of the Kentucky program continue to see guys leave the program early, struggle to play well against lesser competition and why the program hasn’t been dominating the college basketball scene as it once did during the first five years of Calipari’s tenure.

“I recruit the best players we can recruit and try to help those kids. And if that includes two- or three- or four-year guys, that’s fine. Would I rather do this like I did back in UMass? Yeah, I’d rather be coaching guys (for three and four years). It’s not what the environment is,” Calipari said.

That statement at the end is very interesting. He said, “It’s not what the environment is.”

Leadership guru John Maxwell said “We see what we are prepared to see”.

In Calipari’s case he prepares kids to see themselves leaving for a career in professional basketball after one or two years at the most. They are prepared to see a future that puts them in the NBA quickly. Anything less than that is considered failure by the kids and ultimately by the people that have prepared that reality.

That perception creates the dilemma the program now has — the “environment” as Coach Calipari calls it. Because for the kids, unfortunately, if they end their second year at UK and they are not ready for the NBA they leave anyway. Some like Isaac Humphries play overseas. Others like Aaron Harrison go to the G league and a few make an NBA roster.

But others, since they are prepared by the program to see themselves leaving after two years, do just that. They leave. Like Sacha Killeya-Jones or Quade Green, they pack their bags and head off to another school. A school that welcomes players that want to play four years.

So as each new crop of freshmen arrive on campus, prepared to move on to the NBA in one or two years, the older guys that have been around for two seasons are also prepared to move on. Their playing time diminishes in favor of the new freshmen in town. Their importance to the team also diminishes as the new guys get their chance to “succeed and proceed.”

The message is then pretty clear. It goes something like “for whatever reason you haven’t grown like we prepared you to so now it’s time for you to leave. We need your spot for someone else.” No one in the program comes out and says that but it is still the message none the less.

At their new school they are then prepared to see a new reality. One that embraces players playing for something more than a possible trip to the NBA. They see a reality where they can play for a league championship or a national championship. Or maybe they play to be a better teammate and learn that if they don’t make the NBA it shouldn’t be considered failure.

The reality is that 99.99 percent of all college players don’t make the NBA. But they do go on to have successful careers as entrepreneurs, doctors, broadcasters, bankers or a myriad of other careers that the rest of the world embraces as a successful way to move through life. Some get married, have children and go on to build a life outside of sports. And it’s ok. That’s a great reality also.

So as fans continue to see kids leave the program for an ill-fated ride through the G League or a trip to another school that welcomes five star players who want to play for four years it’s ok to blame it on the environment but just keep in mind that the environment was created by those that run the program and not the other way around.


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  1. Excellent question!!!!!!!

    Been asking this question in one form or another for several years, and Calipari will not address this issue.

    The closest he has come, without specifically referencing this question, occurred the other day when he said that all the players he recruits believe they are on a path directly to the NBA.

    My conclusion: When it does not happen after 1 season, they can swallow their pride and return for year 2, but after 2 years of this insanity without a clear path to the NBA, then it means they must move to greener pastures rather than remain in a UK program that regards and treats them as utter failures for not making it to the next level IN TWO YEARS under the guidance of Calipari. Remember, Calipari admittedly views his job as finding the “best path” for his players to the NBA!!!!

  2. This is why I don’t like Calipari’s system of recruiting and program building. It is starting to garner negative views from some in the BBN, but certainly not all. I don’t think the man will ever change his “one and done” approach to recruiting though.

    If his current team can begin to grow up now, fight, win, and maybe even win it all in March, people will forget all this talk and Calipari will once again be the greatest ever no matter who transfers or is labeled a failure for staying around more than a year riding the pine. If he don’t and this team falters, can’t dominate in the SEC, and fails, the road will start to get rough for him. It starts against the “Cheating Tarheels” tomorrow. He is UK’s coach and this is our team, I will root them on.

  3. Larry Pup is right about several things.

    1. This is our team, and I will also be cheering them on.
    2. Calipari is not going to change, UK will have to make the changes
    3. If somehow this team could right its ship and win the championship, the criticism of Calipari will disappear.

    #1 is always true, #2 does not have to be true, and #3 is very unlikely to become the truth.

  4. Going into his 10th year, I can truly say that Cal has not lived up to the hype that came with his arrival. There was still hope after year 5, but now that hope is all but gone. Its time for Mitch Barnhart to step up and put the University of KY first.

  5. Some players are just not good enough to play at one of the blue-blood schools.
    Quade is an example of that. He may put up some big numbers at Washington and I hope he does, BUT… He simply was not ready for prime time at UK.
    Quade saw the handwriting on the wall and made the right choice. There is another Wildcat who will probably make that same choice after the season ends.
    I think most followers of UK Basketball know who it is.

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