By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
In case you hadn’t noticed the landscape of college basketball recruiting has changed — significantly. Headlines that read “Power Five Conference Head Coach caught on tape” offering huge sums of money to a recruit via his agent, handler, friend or family member to come to that coach’s school are pretty commonplace. Assistant coaches pleading guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud and bribery are also pretty commonplace.
But that’s only one element of the changing landscape. Top 10 high school players are also changing. Even if they aren’t collecting “pay for play” benefits they are looking for schools that allow them to be the star. The centerpiece of the offense. The guy that doesn’t have to play defense if he doesn’t want to. No diving on the floor for me. You know, those guys. The guys that want to always have the ball in their hands and shoot twenty or more times per game.
Those guys are going to schools that aren’t necessarily considered the blue bloods of college basketball. Teams like Missouri, Memphis, LSU and even Vanderbilt. They are spending one year showing what they can do playing a one man game of basketball.
So where does that leave teams like Kentucky that don’t want to pay for players and won’t promise a player a starting spot or twenty or more shots per game? I’ll tell you where it leaves them. It leaves them getting guys in the No.10 to No.30 slots and it makes them have to try to develop those guys in one year to be considered a top ten player.
But a funny thing has happened during the occurrence of all these changes in college basketball recruiting. Players at non-Power Five schools have started looking around in their junior year and realizing they might have a decent shot at an NBA career. That makes them start thinking about where they could go as a graduate transfer to improve their skills, increase their visibility and get to play for an NCAA Championship to boot.
Enter John Calipari. Always ahead of the curve in recruiting. He was recruiting one and dones when everyone else was saying “what a stupid way to operate. I’ll never do that”. Enter Bill Self, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. Now one and done recruiting is the standard practice for bluebloods. But John Calipari, being ahead of the curve, realized that while top ten freshman have loads of talent they are seriously lacking in experience and leadership. Experience like “how do we cope with the crowd noise on road games?” or “how do I eat right and spend extra time in the gym so I can improve individually?” Leadership-wise like “how do I help my team mates work together as one unit instead of playing a game of first man down shoots the ball?”
But Calipari, seeing the hazards of the one and done recruiting strategy, has now made an adjustment. Knowing his teams were missing experience and sometimes leadership he dipped his toe into the graduate transfer market. He came up with Julius Mays. A 2013 transfer from Wright State by way North Carolina State. Calipari was hoping to get great outside shooting and experience for a team that desperately needed it. He got that but not in the quantity he had hoped for. But Julius proved to be a great team mate and did all he could to help that UK team win. The experiment was a success, albeit a small one.
Now fast forward to 2018-2019 season. Once again John Calipari and his Wildcats need some extra help on the inside. Along comes Reid Travis looking for an opportunity to improve his skills and play for a National Championship. The two get together and magic happens. UK got the inside help they needed along with an experienced leader that is also a great individual. Reid Travis got tremendous competition every day in practice and in SEC games. He also had increased visibility to NBA scouts and played for a National Championship for the first time in his career.
Sounds like a happy ending. And it would be if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s not the ending. It’s just the beginning. Hopefully the beginning of a productive NBA career for Reid Travis and hopefully the beginning of a new recruiting strategy for John Calipari.
With the commitment of Nate Sestina, a 6’9″ graduate transfer from Bucknell, to Kentucky John Calipari will continue to supplement his team with guys from the transfer portal. He will be able to fill a need once again for an experienced inside player and Nate Sestina will have an opportunity to improve his skills in hopes of creating a career in the NBA. He will also get an opportunity to play for a team that should once again be one of the favorites to make the Final Four and possibly win a National Championship.
So, even with the NCAA threatening to greatly restrict the graduate transfer rule, Coach Calipari seems to have hit on another wrinkle in the recruiting process that could pay big dividends to his teams down the road. It could also pay big dividends to the players themselves. It looks like a win-win for everyone.
Well, not everyone. Remember those coaches I mentioned earlier. The ones that copied Calipari’s one and done recruiting strategy. They aren’t benefiting. But, knowing them like I do, it won’t be long before they are all over the country chasing graduate transfers also. But by then John Vincent Calipari will have already moved on to a different strategy. He can’t help it, it’s in his blood.