How Young Is Too Young?

Coach Cal talks to his freshmen guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

It has become a cliché for John Calipari to say, “This is the youngest team in the country.”

But Calipari doubled down on that for his 2017-18 group: “I think this is the youngest team I’ve ever had.”

I think Senior Day will soon become an anachronism at Kentucky. These teams are going to begin turning over wholesale, with Cal out on the recruiting grind pretty much every month of the year whether he loves it or hates it.

For his sake, and for BBN’s sake, let’s hope he loves it.

How difficult is it to mold a young team into an NCAA tournament team? Some of the esteemed TV experts – like Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg – give Calipari kudos for doing it year after year after year.

For a while, it looked almost effortless. His freshman-laden teams went to the Final Four in four of five seasons and won a national championship.

But the last couple of years, the effort has begun to show. Cal couldn’t get the 2016 team – great guards, no inside play – past the second round. (Everyone cried that the early Indiana matchup was simply unfair, and maybe it was. But really, where was that team going?) The 2017 team was just two points shy of the Final Four, but it simply lacked the magic of UK’s earlier tournament teams, for all its magnificent potential. Malik Monk could have been a hero a la Aaron Harrison or Brandon Knight. But he had left his shooting game in February.

This year is a great unknown. The names and their games are mostly unfamiliar to us. And the most recent news – Mohamed Bamba and Hamidou Diallo choosing someone else (you’ll know, by now, about Diallo) – was just the kind of incremental bad news that bodes ill for Kentucky fans.

So is Cal losing his touch? At least one insider says “absolutely not.”

You probably remember Rod Strickland as the guy who sat mostly silent on the bench near Orlando Antigua and John Robick for several years in the early Cal Era. (He also coached with Calipari at Memphis.)

Last year, Strickland was an assistant to Antigua at the University of South Florida. Antigua was fired. Strickland wanted the job but didn’t get it. Not sure whether he’s staying or going.

But a few months ago, in an interview with TheUndefeated.com, he talked basketball – and Calipari.

He made two points: 1. Calipari still does this better than almost anyone; and 2. The one-and-done isn’t done.

“I don’t think [the one-and-done] was his plan, but once he realized he was on to something, he ran with it,” Strickland said. “He knew that these kids wanted to make money as soon as possible, and Cal wanted to get the best players he could. He had this plan to get all of these one-and-done players, and now you see everybody is following his lead.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is with one-and-done players. You bring in new guys, new personalities and you have so many dynamics between players and families. It’s challenging because this is a one-shot thing and you’re going to the next group next year. Trust me, it’s not easy doing that year to year.”

He was asked about the value of playing for Calipari, even for just one year.

“When John Wall was at Kentucky, he would get so frustrated. And I would tell him, ‘This is the hardest year of your basketball life. Because when you go to the pros, you won’t have Cal screaming in your ear all day.’

“I would tell [Wall] and all the players that this is a different environment and this will help you deal with the next level. Some kids come to college, and a lot of times the adults in their lives treat them like peers. And I don’t think the kids know the difference.

“When they come to college, Cal’s not treating them like peers. The players knew that they’re getting someone who’s going to tell them the truth, and sometimes that truth is harsh.

“What they learn at Kentucky is, it’s not just about you. I think that lesson helps the players in their development.”

Why do they leave? Show them the money!

“If you have a chance to provide for your family, I think you do that. … The cynics say, ‘How dare they leave and make $130 million?’ But how can you be a cynic with someone who’s making over $10 million a year?” VT