When Kentucky basketball’s historically poor season came to a close with a 9-16 final record and no NCAA Tournament appearance, head coach John Calipari promised to “evaluate everything” within the program. He wasn’t satisfied and hinted that changes were coming.
“We’ve got to evaluate everything,” he said during his call-in radio show following the team’s season-ending loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament. “You can’t do it emotionally, got to do it thoughtfully. Got to bring out lots of different opinions, talk to different people I respect. At the end of the day, we know this is Kentucky and it was unacceptable what just happened for the season.
“… I’m not satisfied. My whole mission now is to put this behind us. It’s going to take me some time, but let’s put it behind us,” Calipari continued. “Let’s continue to say, ‘This is Kentucky. This is a standard.’ There were a lot of happy people out there that we had this kind of year. And you know what? Hey, enjoy your time now. Next year’s going to come soon enough.”
Just over a month into the offseason – a national champion was crowned just two weeks ago – changes are not only being whispered about behind closed doors, they’re happening right before our very eyes. After a week of speculation that big-time moves were on the horizon, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman was the first to report late Wednesday evening that UK associate to the head coach Tony Barbee was the frontrunner to land the Central Michigan head coaching job – Barbee has since accepted the job – and added that Illinois assistant Orlando Antigua was “likely to return to Kentucky” where he spent five seasons working alongside Calipari from 2009-14.
And then the first official piece of news dropped Thursday afternoon when ESPN was the first to report that UK assistant Joel Justus was leaving the program to become Bobby Hurley’s top assistant at Arizona State, effective immediately. KSR has since confirmed the news.
Justus, who just completed his fifth season as an assistant coach and his seventh total with the program, has been instrumental in Kentucky’s recruiting efforts since coming on as a full-time assistant. While some fans have never been able to get over Justus’ high-profile misses on the trail – James Wiseman’s, shall I say, messy recruitment being the key reason for complaints – they’ve lost track of the many pieces he’s brought to the program and were in the process of getting in the coming years.
Since becoming an official recruiter on staff, Justus has signed the likes of Bryce Hopkins, Brandon Boston Jr., Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Bam Adebayo, while helping close the deal with countless others. He was also the lead recruiter for longtime UK favorite Jaden Hardy before the G League and overseas professional options came calling, along with earning a commitment from 2022 five-star guard Skyy Clark and leading the charge for fellow five-star junior Jaden Bradley, who is also favoring Kentucky.
Justus’ value at Kentucky came years before any individual prospect would make a final decision, let alone make it to campus and suit up at Kentucky. He was the main point man with recruits’ families during the early stages of high school, and then the direct point of contact with the prospects themselves the summer going into their junior years, the first legal contact period between coaches and players. For instance, Justus has been tight with Skyy Clark’s parents, Kenny and Sarah, for 18 months, and the five-star prospect still has an entire year of high school before he heads to college. This isn’t just a few months or even a year of contact, this is two, three, sometimes four years of relationship development that takes place behind the scenes.
“Mark this down, if Joel Justus takes a head coaching job (before we sign), we’ll be the first to visit campus. I promise you, no matter where it is,” the father of a five-star prospect in the class of 2020 told KSR during his son’s recruitment. “Joel’s a great coach. He’s going to be big no matter where he goes.”
On the court, he started at Kentucky as the program’s director of analytics, helping break down player and team performance with advanced statistical modeling tools as a number and film guru of sorts for Calipari. By the end of his time at Kentucky, he was the team’s top recruiter, signing and developing some of the top players to come through the program in recent years. That doesn’t just happen by accident.
So where did things go wrong in Lexington? It starts and ends with trust.
During Antigua’s first five years at Kentucky, Calipari trusted his judgement to make big-time calls on the recruiting trail, specifically when it came to scouting and evaluating top talent, showing interest in certain prospects, offering scholarships, backing away when things felt off, and pushing for commitments. Kenny Payne’s situation was the same way, serving as the primary ‘closer’ alongside Calipari when things got serious during the home stretch of any recruitment.
With Justus, there was never a sense of complete trust on the recruiting side of things, especially over the course of the last year without Payne on staff. There were particular high-profile recruits and transfers that had serious interest in Kentucky that Justus had evaluated as offer-worthy talent – a few were ready to commit on the spot – that Calipari simply wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on. Especially with in-person scouting and recruiting canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, the UK head coach felt the need to be selective as ever when it came to zeroing in on top prospects and officially bringing them on board.
There were times Calipari trusted Justus’ judgement completely – it was the UK assistant’s call to back away from the table on Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, for instance – but it was not a consistent occurrence. Without Payne on staff, it’s fairly clear that Calipari felt like he had to make the final call on evaluating talent and extending offers on the recruiting trail with both high school prospects and players in the portal, even with longtime friend Bruiser Flint added to the fold. If he didn’t have one of his go-to coaches to lean on for big decisions – Antigua and Payne have been praised for years regarding accountability – Calipari felt the need to do it himself, something that simply isn’t sustainable at 62 years old and coming off an abysmal 9-16 season.
Justus was phenomenal at developing relationships and setting up alley-oop opportunities for Calipari and Payne to seal the deal on commitments, that has always been clear. He’s even closed on several commitments himself. Again, he was one of the lead assistant coaches at the winningest program in college basketball history for a reason, of course he’s good at his job.
But did Calipari completely trust him when it came to talent evaluation and recruiting as the No. 1 option and longest-tenured assistant at UK? Did he trust him enough to make the calls on offers and push for potential commitments when those opportunities presented themselves? Something was clearly missing, and considering his push for a major staff shake-up this offseason – most notably with the return of Antigua – Calipari felt the same way.
Oddly enough, this could end up being a win-win for both Justus and Calipari in both the short- and long-term.
At Arizona State, Bobby Hurley is prepared to make Justus his top assistant and recruiter on staff, giving him the green light to make those big-time calls on talent evaluation, offers, and even commitments. If he succeeds, it’s hard to imagine Justus doesn’t find himself in position to land a head coaching job in the very near future, something he’s been interested in for over two years now. In fact, one West Coast source told KSR on Thursday that he would be “shocked” if the new Arizona State assistant didn’t earn a high-major coaching job – potentially one in the Pac-12 – “in the next two years” given the hotbed of talent and star recruiting role he will be given in Tempe, AZ.
As for Kentucky, Calipari is in a rock fight with Illinois regarding Orlando Antigua, with the school flirting with a contract offer that would make him the highest paid assistant in college basketball, sources tell KSR. Should UK win that battle, as expected, Calipari gets his right-hand man and trusted confidant back in Lexington, someone he pulled off five consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes with, went to three Final Fours and won a national title with. If that’s what it takes to right the ship at Kentucky, so be it.
Should this unfold the way Calipari is hoping and planning for, fans should appreciate Justus for what he did at UK, but look forward to Antigua’s return. Sometimes change is necessary, but it can also benefit all parties involved.