Kentucky’s John Calipari has built a 21st century program that’s destined for more success
NEW ORLEANS – Anthony Davis was charging right into the still delirious Kentucky section of the Superdome, where friends and family sit, after the Wildcats’ 67-59 victory over Kansas in the national title game. He was searching for his family. First he found the program’s friends.
He came across William Wesley, the basketball power broker who’s befriended stars from Michael Jordan to LeBron James. The two locked in a long embrace, rocking back and forth in celebration. When Worldwide Wes let go, Davis moved on to Lynn Merritt, Nike Basketball’s senior director and a man of immense influence in the game.
Later in the locker room, Davis and the rest of the Wildcats would hug it out with Phil Knight, the Nike founder and freshly minted Hall of Famer who was wearing the same “No 1 Greater” championship hat they were. Soon Knight and Wes were locked in joy themselves.
Ashley Judd was at the Superdome cheering. Jay-Z came to the game Saturday. Drake is a regular. LeBron once even attended a game in Lexington and when the cheerleaders spelled out K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y, he was the “Y.”
John Calipari’s program isn’t just the hottest in the country after it captured its eighth NCAA title and Cal spoke boldly about placing six of his players (three of them freshmen) in the first round of June’s NBA draft.
It’s the hottest program since UCLA used to win everything every single year.
And so here’s the worst nightmare for everyone who had to swallow hard to accept the vision of Calipari and his band of pro prospects having their One (and Done) Shining Moment:
There’s no reason to think that UK can’t repeat next year … with an almost entirely new team.
[ Related: Kentucky holds off Kansas to capture national title ]
“Right now I’m going to have two days and then I’ve got to go out recruiting Friday,” Calipari said of his plans to enjoy his first title.
His top three targets are Las Vegas’ Shabazz Muhammad, the No. 1-ranked recruit in America, Nerlens Noel, an Anthony Davis-like 6-foot-10 star out of Massachusetts that Rivals.com has as the third-best player, and Anthony Bennett, the seventh-ranked recruit who’s also from Vegas.
Multiple sources think Kentucky has a tremendous chance at all three players, and this Final Four infomercial didn’t hurt. If so, you add them to three other top-40 recruits who have already signed and, well, here comes Kentucky.
Again. Like, back-in-the-Final-Four-in-Atlanta-level again.
Calipari spent much of his postgame press conference doing what he does best, trying to deflect credit to his players while focusing just about every single word he says to the open ears of top high school talent, their families and the inner circles that control the recruiting process.
Calipari is destroying the conventional wisdom that you can’t build a “program” with players who leave campus after just a few months. It may not be your traditional definition of a program, but it is at least a “system” that showcases talent, prepares them not just to be drafted but to succeed in the NBA and, now with this trophy as proof, win championships.
“I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages,” Calipari said. “It doesn’t matter how young you are, it’s how you play together.”
This 38-victory season has been the final breakthrough for Calipari. The great players already believed in him, but now with these clipped nets he can sell it all.
“I said a couple years ago, and everybody got crazy, [that] when we had five guys drafted in the  first round [that] this is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history,” Calipari said Monday night. “The reason was, I knew now other kids would look and say, ‘You’ve got to go there.’ ”
And they came. First last year, when UK got to the Final Four. And now for this one, when they closed it out.
Now this year’s players will all go, the whole thing will be gone in an instant.
And that’s how the coach wants it. Calipari may be the most honest coach in the country when it comes to navigating the NBA’s age minimum that forces the best players to campus for at least one year. At no moment does he pretend that getting to the NBA isn’t the primary goal of each and every member of his team.
So he’s worked and worked and worked to create a place where the players come first, where a coach will risk the wrath of fans and snark of his coaching peers by declaring draft night as bigger than winning championships. And then he figured out how to coach them to the ultimate success.
“You’ve got to recruit them so they know you’re trustworthy,” Calipari said. “And they’ve got to trust that you’re doing it for them; [that] it’s not about me. Then they’ll do what you ask them to do because it’s for them. I’m not doing it for me.”
Well, of course he’s doing it for himself. And for Kentucky. And for the salary. And all the rest. The players can accept that deal, though. So can the power brokers, because it’s clear this different kind of “program” is working.
Recruiting is an ugly business, but it’s also the reality of this business. Everyone is chasing the same stars. Everyone goes after the same guys. Just about everyone walks the same line. In the end, it’s still about where players and their people feel they’ll succeed.
You give John Calipari and Kentucky a chance with a great prospect and he not only doesn’t screw him up, he returns a player prepared for the NBA. He coached two of the last three rookies of the year. And Anthony Davis looks pretty ready for 2012-13.
The old establishment of this sport may hate it, but to most high school stars there isn’t a more tantalizing image than Davis celebrating a national title with kingmakers such as Phil Knight, Lynn Merritt and World Wide Wes.
Maybe once this game was about a four-year star such as Shane Battier and his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, sharing a long-worked-for moment of mutual respect and love.
That was then. This is now. And this is Kentucky.
Deal with it. As long as Calipari doesn’t follow his players back to the NBA, he’s sitting on a juggernaut that could redefine what’s possible in the modern era.
Calipari hopes he loses his top six players to the NBA draft.
“That’s why I’ve got to go recruiting,” Calipari said.
See you in Atlanta next April.
More NCAA tournament coverage on the Yahoo! network:
• Video: Kentucky fans party in New Orleans | Riots in Kentucky
• Kansas left shattered after comeback bid falls short | Photos
• Video: The Fray’s dreadful national anthem performance | The Fray on Y! Music
• Y! Sports Radio: Kentucky guard Darius Miller ‘feels amazing’ after winning title