Like all great college basketball empires, Kentucky has been able to keep a stable of royal recruits flowing in. Since coach John Calipari’s arrival in the 2009-10 season, they've reached the Final Four on four separate occasions and won the NCAA title in the 2011-2012 season.
The Wildcats don’t rebuild. They reload.
Kentucky is the most successful NCAA Division I basketball program in history, holding both the most all-time wins record (2200) and the highest all-time winning percentage (.764). They lead all schools in NCAA tournament appearances (54), wins (120), tourney games played (167), Sweet Sixteen appearances (41), Elite Eight faceoffs (36), and total postseason tournament appearances (63).
Most college programs would be irreparably damaged if they lost a mass exodus of star players like Kentucky did following last season. Calipari lost seven players from a Final Four brotherhood that demolished the competition in historic fashion, going 38-0 before losing in the NCAA Tournament semis to a very talented Wisconsin squad.
#1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker all entered the NBA draft.
It was eerily similar to 2012, when the Cats were the defending NCAA champions. In a joint press conference, #1 overall pick Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Marquis Teague all declared for the NBA draft. Darius Miller was a senior, so Coach Cal lost six players in one NBA lick.
Despite Kentucky’s now-legendary ability to stock up on future NBA ballers, entering this season there was mixed support for Calipari's clique as Southeastern Conference favorites. Some suggested that there would be a let down. Maybe even a repeat of 2013, when Kentucky followed up that 2012 NCAA title with an embarrassing first-round NIT loss.That was the only time a Calipari-led Kentucky squad failed to make The Big Dance.
Turns out, the concern was unwarranted. Calipari simply replenished his lost stock with a new band of blue chip recruits. The only mystery was which one of the diaper dandies would fill the void and distinguish himself as the top shotta.
Freshman Jamal Murray of Ontario, Canada has emerged as that dude. The 6-5, 207-pound guard leads Kentucky in scoring (19.9 ppg) and he’s dishing five dimes a contest for the No. 22 Wildcats, who are 16-0 at Rupp Arena and tied for first place in the SEC conference with Texas A&M.
Sophomore Tyler Ulis has also picked up the slack, averaging 16.7 points per contest. Calipari’s youth movement hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, three of Kentucky’s top six scorers are freshmen. Isaiah Briscoe, from the Brick City, is making Redman proud and chipping in about 10 points per game, while 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere from Haiti is getting Kentucky high off that Fugee vibe.
Calipari's kids aren’t lapping the field like last year, but they won’t be laughing stocks as some labeled them in 2013.
Calipari is never happy with his young players unless they are blowing the doors off teams, and even then he is cautious with his praise. That’s just his way of keeping young guys who have one foot on the Rupp floor and one foot in the NBA draft grounded and focused.
He has to make them think they stink, so that they can continue to work and make statements like they made last night against a 17-win Florida Gators squad that was fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. Kentucky took an early lead and cruised to a 88-79 road win.
In the post-game press conference, Calipari stressed the importance of his team playing with confidence.
"I need a confident basketball team, and it's not going to come from me building guys up who are playing like crap," Calipari said. "That's not confidence. That's fake. That's not how we operate. It is telling them the truth, work on it and go do it in the game."
Despite Calipari’s obsessive pursuit of perfection, a recognizable balance and chemistry has materialized between his veteran ballers and fab freshman. It’s stronger than it was back in 2013.
The Wildcats had five players finish in double-figures against Florida last night in Gainesville, led by Murray's and 19 from Ulis, who also chipped in 11 assists. Senior forward Alex Poythress recorded a double-double with 12 points and 10 boards, Labissiere added 11 points and eight boards, and Isaiah Briscoe scored 13.
Kentucky (22-8, 12-5 SEC) hosts LSU (17-12, 10-6) on Saturday at Rupp Arena to close out the regular season. The erratic and dangerous Tigers and freshman phenom Ben Simmons have already beaten the Wildcats once this season.
Reversing that loss and storming into the SEC tourney with confidence is vital for a program that continues to change the face of college basketball by creating new Lexington Legends season after season.