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Reboot

BOZICH | Will John Calipari's tweaks get Kentucky basketball back to its sweet spot?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- What will John Calipari’s new niche be at Kentucky? He’s always had a niche.

How will he achieve the most important thing any coach can achieve: collecting the best players and building his primary edge with talent?

That’s always been the Calipari Way: beat you with better players.

Lately, he hasn’t had better players — even though Isaiah Jackson became the latest UK freshman to announce he was NBA-bound less than two hours after Calipari answered questions on a Zoom teleconference Friday morning.

“The changes that are coming are coming so fast,” said Calipari, who recently took his revised staff on a retreat to examine Big Picture issues. “Most of it is falling right on the coaches. Every coach right now is trying to figure out how we structure everything to make this happen ...

“... We have to wait and see exactly what the new rules state, but nobody should be able to do it better than our basketball program for men’s basketball.”

Will his new niche be transfers, transfers, transfers?

Will it be taking the leading scorers from two other teams, the top 3-point shooter from a Big Ten power and an elite rebounder from Bob Huggins and mixing those four transfers with the usual collection of five-star recruits and returnees to ensure Kentucky never goes 9-15 again?

Calipari needs a niche. Always has.

He needs one to get the Wildcats back ahead of Alabama, Arkansas and LSU in the Southeastern Conference. He needs it to chase Baylor, Gonzaga, Villanova and others who have overtaken UK on the national scene.

He arrived in 2009. In his first six years, the Wildcats went to four Final Fours and won the 2012 national title. After his 38-0 team with nine NBA players lost to Wisconsin in the 2015 national semifinals, UK has not been back.

Calipari is a marketing guy, constantly looking for inefficiencies to exploit.

Once, he was the Go-To-Coach for point guards.

That led to becoming The One-and-Done guy. NBA Draft Night was greater than NCAA title night, remember?

Don’t forget the sizzling scheduling. Games in Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland — anywhere the networks are ready to set up cameras.

Lately, all of that has not been enough. Time for a reboot.

Over the last five NCAA Tournaments, 18 programs have reached the Final Four, including two (Auburn and South Carolina) from the SEC.

Two schools have made it twice: Gonzaga and Villanova. Calipari must press the Reset Button.

Two new assistant coaches — Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman — were fast-tracked from Illinois, where they were critical to building the roster of a No. 1 seed.

He’s added support staff, guys who will train their focus on the swirling NCAA transfer portal, which has featured more than 1,600 names now that players can make their first move without sitting out.

Kentucky did as well as anybody, rebuilding its backcourt with two players (Kellan Grady of Davidson and Sahvir Wheeler of Georgia) that led their teams in scoring; C.J. Fredrick, the 47% 3-point shooter from Iowa and Oscar Tshiebwe, a rebounding maestro from West Virginia.

More concern about the mental health of players, a move driven by the challenges created by the upside-down nature of the novel coronavirus 2020-21 season.

A tweak to the Wildcats playing style. More attention to 3-point shooting (heard that before). Faster pace (definitely heard that one before).

Consideration of playing with one and no post players (now we’re talking — and talking about something different).

But, as always, the most important tweak will be this one: How will Calipari get the best players?

He needs the state of the Kentucky and the NCAA to pick up the pace on name/image/likeness legislation.

Six states, including three in the Southeastern Conference, are ahead of Kentucky in that area, which will allow players to monetize their brands as college athletes.

Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and the occasional Oklahoma State success (Cade Cunningham) are not the only challengers for UK any more.

Three of the top-20 prospects in the prep class of 2021 will skip college to play in the NBA’s G-League. An organization called Overtime Elite is recruiting high school underclassmen and reportedly paying them a minimum of $100,00 to skip their final year of high school.

Calipari’s original game plan that worked with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis is unlikely to work today. He shared some of his pitch Friday.

“Two years ago, TV wise, our ratings were, before the pandemic, our ratings would rank third in the NBA,” Calipari said. “Fourth, I’m sorry, Golden State the Lakers and Cleveland with LeBron would be above our ratings.

“So all the social media stuff, all the things that we do, all that we can do in my mind should be the best in the country.

“We're not just competing against (other colleges). We're competing against that, too, because the kids they are going after are the kids that we would recruit.”

So how does Calipari go into a living room and get somebody who has options, options that can include the opportunity to put up bigger statistics or make money?

“Here is the thing. The G-League last year, the Ignite team, their TV ratings ... compared to what we do (aren’t much),” Calipari said

“I’ll just give you a player. Cade Cunningham, who I love. Cade Cunningham could have (played in the G-League), but he went to college. Forget about just Kentucky. Think about college.

“He went to college. And he went to Oklahoma State. Cade Cunningham, his whole, not just basketball and what it did for him, his brand, his ability to take advantage of that on the market is through the roof.

“And he was in Oklahoma. I’m saying Oklahoma State, and they’re a great program. They’re in Stillwater, Oklahoma and that happened for him.

“Now you think about Kentucky, what that means if that guy comes here.

“Or, I’ll give you another one. You look at guys that go to another school. And I’m not even mentioning Kentucky. They go to another school and all of a sudden they explode.

“What would have happened if they went to the pro league? And now their marketing dollars aren’t the same. You could lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Here’s what I keep saying: If kids want to do that or families are set, I have no problem. That’s fine.

“We need kids here that aren’t coming here that I’ve got to play 35 minutes and take 35 shots. I’ve got to be the only guy on the team. That’s not our culture here and never will be.

“You’ve got to come here and fight for what you want … the kids that fight through this end up making it. And their brand is built over time.

“I don’t really think we’re competing. If a kid has an interest in that, he’s not coming to Kentucky. That’s just my opinion.

“If they look at this and say the overall picture, we call it the Kentucky Effect. The shoe contracts are more. The endorsements are more.”

The tweaks have been made. The pitch has been altered. Now the world will see if Calipari can put Kentucky back in the sweet spot of college basketball.

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