HOUSTON (AP) - John Calipari didn’t come up with the “one-and-done” rule.
Didn’t write it. Didn’t implement it. The Kentucky coach didn’t even really approve of it when the NBA decided in 2006 that players needed to be a year removed from high school before heading to the pros.
Yet Calipari has mastered it in a way few of his peers have, pulling off a seemingly impossible task season after season: molding the nation’s top recruiting class into NBA-ready pros in six short months while somehow getting them to buy into the team-first concept in the process.
A year ago, they were all high school seniors. Next fall, Knight and Jones will likely be getting paid to play. And Calipari will welcome another gifted handful of McDonald's All-Americans and attempt to do it all over again.
It’s the Calipari way. And it’s probably not going anywhere.
“To be the best, I really believe you have to have the best players,” Calipari said. “You want to be the best. You ain’t coaching them up. You can play that game if you choose to.”
Some do, and do it well.
The rosters of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are stacked with upperclassmen who have bought into the system and flourished as they matured. Connecticut is led by charismatic junior Kemba Walker and a pack of underclassmen, all of whom are expected to return next fall.
The Huskies have produced some of the NBA’s top players through the years. And, all of them opted to stay at least two years.
“If we start hearing, ‘Coach, I’ll only be there (one year) … well, we really don’t talk that way at UConn,’” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.
Calipari hears it all the time, and it doesn’t bother him even if each season is likely to feature a team full of shooting stars than slow-burning comets.
Calipari has long supported baseball’s rule that allows players to enter the draft right out of high school or commit to at least three years of college.
“Man, I wish this was the ‘70s (and) I had these guys for three years, we wouldn’t lose any games,” Calipari said.
Not that the current structure has proven difficult for him to navigate. His teams have won an average of 33.5 games since the one-and-done rule was instituted.
He preaches he tries to put together a “players first” program, and the message is attractive to players looking to iron out the wrinkles before becoming millionaires.
“He tells you coming in that he’s going to let you play and let you make mistakes, but he’s going to let you learn from them,” said Washington Wizards rookie John Wall, who played one season for Kentucky before bolting to the NBA. “He gives you an opportunity to go in there and show your talent, and he knows he’s a good enough coach that he can go out and get the same type of guy (the next year).”
The next class of Wildcats are already set to go.
If Knight and Jones go pro later this spring, they’ll be replaced by another talented group led by forward Anthony Davis and point guard Marquis Teague, both of whom could have very short stays in Lexington.
Recruiting talented but highly volatile stars can come at a price. The NCAA ordered Memphis to vacate all 38 of its wins during the 2007-08 season for using an ineligible player believed to be Derrick Rose, who spent a season at Memphis before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
It’s a risk some programs deem too dangerous.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is reluctant to recruit a player who may only stick around for a season, citing the school’s academic demands and the entourages that surround some of the nation’s top players.
“A lot of one-and-done guys come with a lot of coaching already from people helping them along the way,” said Brey, who led the Irish to a 27-7 record behind senior guard Ben Hansbrough. “At this point in my career, I don’t know if I want to deal with that.”
The Irish have been successful with a different type of short-term players: transfers like Hansbrough, who came to Notre Dame after two years at Mississippi State.
Still, Hansbrough remained with the school for three seasons, sitting out one under NCAA transfer rules before developing into one of the Big East’s best shooters as a junior and senior.
Besides the outside distractions, introducing a one-year player in a locker room full of veterans could upset the delicate balance of the locker room.
Butler has made consecutive Final Fours “the Butler Way,” using a low-key, humble approach championed by coach Brad Stevens. If the Bulldogs were to bring a hotshot recruit in, the chemistry may change, and not for the better.
“We’re not individuals here, we’re not playing for an individual star or something like that,” Butler guard Chase Stigall said. “We’re trying to build a program. The program was started a long time ago.”
So was Kentucky’s, though Calipari isn’t one to dwell on the past. He caused a stir last June when he called the night five Wildcats _ four of them freshmen _ were selected in the first round of the NBA draft the greatest day in the program’s history, the school’s seven national championships included.
Calipari is unapologetic in his approach. He values experience, but he covets talent.
“If I have a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, I’m taking talent every time,” he said. “I can try to figure out how to get them to defend, how to play together, all of those things.”
Though he’s the most accomplished coach when it comes to attracting one-and-dones, he’s hardly alone in the pursuit of potential one-year phenoms. Ohio State rode freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley to an appearance in the national title game in 2007. Kevin Love took UCLA to the Final Four in 2008. Kevin Durant played just one season at Texas. Same for Michael Beasley at Kansas State.
The sight of players treating college as a 12-month way station between high school and the NBA doesn’t sit well with NCAA president Mark Emmert, though he is powerless to stop it.
“I would very much like to not have that become the image of intercollegiate basketball, even though there are some that do that,” Emmert said. “I’d certainly like kids to stay in college and prepare themselves for the rest of their lives.”
That’s fine. He didn’t make up the rules. He swears he’s just trying to play by them.
“My (best) option is to recruit the best players we have, the best students we can recruit, and then coach ‘em and get ‘em to believe in themselves, get ‘em to reach their dreams,” Calipari said. “If that is done after a year, then I’ll deal with it.”
AP Sports Writer Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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