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College Basketball Preview: John Calipari Is Changing The Game

So far ahead of the curve, other coaches can only hope he takes a wrong turn.

By Zach Dillard November 13, 2012, 06:32 PM EST

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As Orlando Antigua scans his computer screen, the stark contrast in the national perception of Kentucky’s basketball program makes him shake his head.

Dynasty. Cheaters. Legends. Buying championships.

It’s all in a day’s work for the Wildcats’ assistant coach, as he often looks over the social media landscape to get a feel for the collective pulse surrounding Kentucky. The positives bring a look of pride. The negatives strike a nerve. Of course, the school’s All-Access program on ESPN – the very same cameras Antigua scrolled through Twitter in front of – did little to quiet the dissent.

“When you’re on top, then what else are they gonna say?” Antigua says. “Not everybody’s happy when you’re having success. But we are, though.”

If there is one takeaway from Kentucky’s reveal-as-much-as-possible TV series, it’s this: John Calipari is a marketing genius of the highest degree.

In an age where technology and unfiltered exposure captures every flaw, Calipari, the 53-year-old coach of the Wildcats, has discovered a previously-untraveled path in Lexington. And it’s paved in gold. Instead of fighting the urge to find more privacy, just be more open. Invite the cameras. Invite the TV producers. Show the world – and, in turn, future recruits – just what it takes to be a national champion. Televise how idolized and important 18- and 19-year-old young men are in this culture.

Then step back and let the chips fall – negative feedback or not.

When Calipari arrived at SEC Media Days last month, the other coaches were already discussing his dynasty and intrinsic advantage. South Carolina coachFrank Martin called the all-access show a “24-hour recruiting cycle.” Florida coach Billy Donovan came off particularly perturbed, saying it was wrong if Calipari were using it to gain a competitive advantage.

Too late.

While folks are asking questions and raising social media hell, Calipari gets straight to the point. This is his team, this is his program. Come take a look and see for yourself. In the meantime, all the recruits nationwide can sneak a peek, too.

What Donovan and others don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) is that Calipari is mapping out a blueprint never before followed in the history of college basketball.

Though he does not support it, Calipari solved the one-and-done conundrum so quickly that the rest of the country is still hoping he’s messed up the theory. There’s no sense in trying to mimic him – his connection with young men and their families, his success, his personable nature, his marketing virtuosity … none of it is entirely imitable.

Perhaps the best option is to craft veteran teams to try and beat his freshman-heavy rosters, and then hope he runs afoul with the NCAA rulebook.

“I look now at this stage of my career and I wonder whether I’m in the business of basketball or I’m in the business of helping families,” Calipari says into the camera. “What you do when you go recruit, you find out that parents want to know: Do you care? … The young man wants to know: Are you gonna get me ready? Are you going to hold me back or are you going to teach me what it takes? Are you gonna help me reach my dream?”

High school basketball stars are not looking to become four-year stars before sneaking into the NBA. They do not want to toil under the NCAA’s charade of amateurism while schools profit off their names and likenesses (even if they are unaware it’s happening). They do not want to be held back from millions of dollars.

They want it all. Soon.

And, in the opinions of young men across the country – or even in Canada – Calipari possesses the power to make those dreams come to life.

In all, he and his coaching staff have forged a connection to today’s youth like no other program in the country. Sure, the exposure and national spotlight of the Wildcats’ logo never hurts. But coaches have failed in Lexington before. Coaches of top programs have fallen short on numerous occasions in the one-and-done era.

He’s so far ahead of this era’s learning curve that opposing coaches are hoping he took a wrong turn. There’s no sense in trying to catch up. Just try to find another way around.

Calipari changed the game. He now has a banner hanging in Rupp Arena to show for it.

 

ALL-AMERICA TEAM

Aaron Craft, Ohio State, G: The best on-ball defender in the country, Craft creates myriad problems for opposing offenses. Though he still needs to work on his outside shot – and take hold of a bigger scoring role now that Jared Sullinger is in the NBA – the 6-foot-2 junior is one of the best leaders in college basketball, coming up big when it matters most. His efforts spearheaded Ohio State’s run to the Final Four last season.

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State, G: There are a few reasons Murray State flirted with an undefeated regular season in 2011-12, but Canaan is the biggest. He averaged 19 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game last season, and is one of the best shot-makers around. Unless the Racers make another unbeaten run, it’s unlikely he’ll be in the spotlight again this season, but he is one of the most dangerous players to watch for come March.

Mike Moser, UNLV, F: A versatile forward, Moser moves to the wing for the Runnin’ Rebels in what looks to be a down year for big wings in the college game. At 6-foot-8, Moser is a beast on the boards, grabbing 10.5 rebounds per game last season (10th nationally). Returning teammates Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins – along with freshman Anthony Bennett – should keep UNLV looking toward a Final Four berth and plenty of attention on Moser’s relatively hidden talents.

James Michael McAdoo, UNC, F: After waiting in line behind an NBA-bound frontcourt his freshman season, it’s time for McAdoo to shine in Chapel Hill. He was projected to be a lottery pick in June’s draft, but elected to return to become the go-to guy in the Roy Williams’ new-look approach. McAdoo is an elite athlete with all the tools to become a top-five pick. He just needs to put it all together. Regardless, he’ll average more than 6.1 points.

Cody Zeller, Indiana, C: The preseason frontrunner for the Naismith Award, Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a freshman for the resurrected Hoosiers. Now, his and Tom Crean’s sights are set higher. Indiana is competing for a national title this season, and that will hinge on Zeller’s efforts. A 7-footer with range, skills and a high motor, he’s a matchup nightmare in the college game. The question: How much better can he get in Year Two?

FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS

Louisville: Rick Pitino returns many of the key pieces to last season’s Final Four team, and has shown no signs of slowing down. With center Gorgui Dieng still protecting the rim, a bevy of athletic wings and a solid recruiting class, expectations are high. Starting out the season at No. 2 in the country, the Cardinals’ high-pressure approach causes problems for most teams in the postseason. Main question: Will the game (finally) slow down for point guard Peyton Siva?

UNLV: In his first season, Dave Rice turned the UNLV program around, finishing with a 26-9 record and an NCAA tourney appearance. With Moser, a strong backcourt and his first blue-chip recruit (Bennett), this could be the team outside one of the six power conferences to make a deep run. This would be a big step for Year Two, but the field is wide open. Main question: Can the Rebels find offensive consistency?

Arizona: A team of relative unknown commodities, Sean Miller has put together a group that should only improve as the season goes on. While the Wildcats’ top returner, guard Solomon Hill, is already one of the Pac-12’s best players, the key will be how Miller infuses his elite recruiting class – featuring post players Kaleb Tarczewski,Brandon Ashley and Grant Jarrett -- into the system. Main question: Can Miller pull off a Calipari-esque job with his youthful bunch?

Indiana: Zeller is a star, but Crean has surrounded him with plenty of talent, enough that the Hoosiers are the title favorites once more. Senior Christian Watford returns to provide scoring (16.0 points per game). Freshman Yogi Ferrell could be a steady force at the point – impact freshmen never hurt in college basketball. The Hoosiers were top-five in offensive efficiency a year ago, and they should be even better.Main question: Can Indiana defend elite offenses?

KEEP AN EYE ON…

Changing tides on Tobacco Road? The ACC has been Duke and North Carolina’s bread and butter for decades, but it looks as though other league teams could give the bluebloods a push. N.C. State returns its best players (C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown) and brings in the ACC’s top recruiting class, while Florida State and Miami boast talent down south. The Tar Heels, even at No. 11 nationally, may be one of the most underrated teams nationally, but will it be enough to keep their conference crown?

Resurgence complete? It seems natural that Indiana and UCLA are back in preseason Final Four discussions, almost as if both programs never experienced a down time. But they did. With top recruits (Zeller, Ferrell, Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson) again selecting two of the winningest programs in college basketball, though, all seems right. The only thing left to do for UCLA is get Muhammad eligible and both programs could make noise in the Big Dance. If that sounds easier said than done, then perhaps lean toward the Hoosiers on your bracket.

Open door policy? Without a truly dominant team – like 2011-12 Kentucky or 2008-09 North Carolina – the field open for a mid-major (or two, or three) to make some noise in the tournament. In fact, the Atlantic 10 might just be one of the best conferences in the nation with the addition of VCU and Butler. So will it even be considered a “Cinderella” run if UNLV, Creighton, VCU, San Diego State or Gonzaga makes a deep run?

Mid-major Naismith? With a mass exodus of talent into the NBA Draft, much of the nation’s talent resides in smaller leagues. Doug McDermott (Creighton) nearly walked away with national POY honors, while guys like Canaan, Moser, Tony Mitchell (North Texas), Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State) and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) all register highly on the country-wide scale. Don’t look so shocked when your favorite team gets knocked out by one of these standout performers.

Bluegrass champs? It all comes back to Calipari, but his in-state rival could just as well cut down the nets for the state of Kentucky, too. After meeting in the Final Four last season, the Louisville-Kentucky vitriol reached an all-time high. And with both teams entering the season ranked among the top-five teams in the country, don’t expect that to go away. Their meeting on Dec. 29 might not be the only time we see these two collide in 2012-13.

Can’t wait.

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Zach Dillard is a contributor at The Shadow League and writer for Fox Sports. You can email him at dillardsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @Zach_Dillard.

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