Despite criticism, Calipari thrives at Kentucky

Kentucky coach John Calipari watches his team practice in preparation for the NCAA Final Four on Friday, April 4, 2014, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Kentucky coach John Calipari watches his team practice in preparation for the NCAA Final Four on Friday, April 4, 2014, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Photo by Getty Images
| Friday, April 4, 2014, 9:44 p.m.

Not everyone can play for Kentucky coach and Moon native John Calipari.

Calipari is a taskmaster who pushes his players relentlessly. But with sacrifice and elite talent come great reward for the Wildcats.

On Saturday, Kentucky faces Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Wildcats' third Final Four appearance in four years.

Kentucky's freshmen-dominated lineup features six McDonald's All-Americans, some of whom — like Kentucky freshmen from previous seasons — will add to the growing list of standouts punching their one-and-done ticket to the NBA.

Since Calipari took over at Kentucky four years ago, 12 Wildcats freshmen have entered the NBA as first-round draft picks, including No. 1 overall selections John Wall (2010) and Anthony Davis (2012), No. 2 selection Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2012), No. 3 selection Enes Kanter (2011), No. 5 pick DeMarcus Cousins (2010) and No. 6 selection Nerlens Noel (2013).

This year's team could lose freshmen starters Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson to the draft. In preparation for their departures, Calipari welcomes four newcomers who will appear in Wednesday's annual McDonald's All-American Game: center Karl Towns Jr. (Metuchen, N.J.), power forward Trey Lyles (Indianapolis), shooting guard Devin Booker (Moss Point, Miss.) and point guard Tyler Ulis (Matteson, Ill.).

“We've got four kids in it. Four great, great kids,” Calipari said during a Final Four teleconference. “They're terrific basketball players.”

For all of his success, including taking Kentucky and Memphis to a total of four Final Fours in the past seven years — he also led Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996 — Calipari laments that he's a magnet for criticism.

Two of those Final Four appearances, 1996 with UMass and 2008 with Memphis, since have been vacated.

“You're scrutinized because people are attacking me,” Calipari said he tells Kentucky recruits. “You're going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me.”

Calipari became defensive when asked why he has been able to attract so many elite players.

“Wait a minute,” said Calipari, a Pitt assistant from 1985-88. “When I was at UMass (1988-96), we had one McDonald's All‑American, Donta Bright. When I was at Memphis (2000-09), we may have had three over my years there. We weren't getting top‑50 players at UMass. We were winning. We were a terrific team. I had to coach guys four years. At Memphis, I was coaching them three to four years. We were becoming a good team.

“Now I'm at Kentucky. There's a combination of the parents understanding Kentucky, what it is, and the young people only know three years. The kids we recruit, they don't know five years ago. They know the last three years.”

Calipari said major college basketball changed when five of his Kentucky freshmen were selected in the first round of the 2010 draft. That was a first.

“When John Wall and (Eric) Bledsoe and Cousins and (Patrick) Patterson went in that draft, (Daniel) Orton, five first‑rounders, it changed the whole direction,” Calipari said. “It wasn't like we planned it. I never thought Eric Bledsoe was one‑and‑done. No one thought that.”

Like Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA championships with teams featuring superstars, Calipari has mastered how to incorporate elite players into his team. Of the 28 freshmen who went to the NBA since 2009-10, just less than half (43 percent) played for Calipari at Kentucky.

“What's happened is these kids understand they have to come together, and we're honest with them,” Calipari said. “This is the hardest place to come and play basketball. Every one of these kids averaged 25 (points), were McDonald's All-Americans in some form or fashion. All of a sudden, you're asked to do way less. If you want to be the only guy who can play, don't come here. If you want to take all the shots, go somewhere else. If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys. If you want to go there, go.

“That's not how it is here. Every game is the Super Bowl. What we're doing has never been done.

“That's a heck of a sale, isn't it?”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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