Something about Kentucky Basketball just hasn’t felt the same over the last half-decade.
Written plainly, it’s actually not all that complicated as to why.
During head coach John Calipari’s first six seasons with the Wildcats from the 2009-10 season through 2014-15, Kentucky posted a 190-38 record (.833) that included five trips to the Elite 8, four Finals 4s, and a National Championship in 2012. Eight different players during that span were selected within the top seven picks of their NBA Drafts. It was a years-long influx of young, star-level talent that college basketball had never seen the likes of before at one school–and hasn’t since.
Between the 2015-16 and 2020-21 seasons–Caliapri’s second six-year stretch–the results haven’t been nearly as dominant: a 149-54 overall record (.734) with just two trips to the Elite 8 and no Final Fours, capped off by one of the worst seasons in program history. Barring a surprise rise in stock from Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky will have had just two of its players drafted among the top seven picks in the NBA Draft during this span.
Granted, the 2019-20 postseason was lost to COVID-19, and that was arguably the most cohesive roster Calipari has had since the De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, and Malik Monk squad lost to North Carolina in the Elite 8. There’s a good chance the 2019-20 team could have made it to the Elite 8 or further, but we can’t play the hypothetical game forever. If we’re looking at the most glaring differences between these two mini-eras, it’s not about the coaching philosophies or the willingness/unwillingness to adapt to the modern-day way of playing basketball, although those factors should not be overlooked.
The biggest difference has been the talent on the court, and this isn’t exactly shocking news.
According to 247 Sports, during Calipari’s first six-year stretch, Kentucky possessed the nation’s top recruiting class in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. In 2014, the ‘Cats finished 2nd. 16 of those players were ranked as top 10 prospects from their respective class, including nine from the top five. In the six years after that, Calipari’s recruiting classes came in as the top group in 2015 and 2020 with 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 finishing 2nd. Not all that different on the surface, but only nine of those players were ranked as top 10 recruits with just two in the top five: Skal Labissiere and Brandon Boston Jr.
Rosters that were once loaded with future NBA All-Stars such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and Karl-Anthony Towns have since turned into teams missing that superstar player who could take over a game all by himself. Fox, Adebayo, and Jamal Murray, among others, were stellar in their own right at Kentucky, but their overall team success never matched those of the early Calipari years. UK has consistently been missing the one special player (or players) they previously required to make deep runs into the postseason.
This brings me to my main point: Kentucky simply hasn’t been able to land the premier high school hoopers from around the country across the last six years.
Chalk it up to more players taking professional routes, relatives joining opposing coaching staffs, or whatever you want to call it, but it’s hard to argue that Calipari hasn’t lost his mojo on the recruiting trail the last several years. Looking a bit deeper, the biggest constant missing from the first six-year stretch compared to the most recent one has been the people that surround Calipari–notably Orlando Antigua, who left Lexington after five seasons to take a head coaching job at South Florida in 2014.
It’s no coincidence that Kentucky hauled in five consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes while Antigua was an assistant coach and then dropped to No. 2 the year immediately after he left for greener pastures. But even then, he helped recruit the class of 2014 that came in second and featured the likes of Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis, and Devin Booker. Since then, the magic hasn’t been the same–the swagger that the Kentucky program used to pump through its veins was drying up.
But, to his credit, Calipari has taken a massive (and necessary) step in getting that swagger back. It was a move he recognized was needed after suffering through a nine-win season this past year.
Antigua is back in the fold with Kentucky after being announced as the associate head coach earlier on Thursday. He was a key cog in building Illinois Basketball from one of the Big Ten’s bottom-feeders into an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in a matter of four years. A large part of that came through recruiting, particularly in the surrounding area of Illinois. It couldn’t have been done with Ron “Chin” Coleman either, who joins Antigua as a joint hire at Kentucky. Coleman has become a well-known and respected name in the recruiting world and is someone who has the talent-rich Chicago area locked down.
Those two, combined with the young and determined energy from another star recruiter already on staff, Jai Lucas, have brought back an identical recipe that made Calipari and Kentucky so successful early into his UK tenure: ace recruiters who have a track record of bringing in the best-of-the-best. It’s a significant early sign that Calipari is eager to get back into his classic “Swaggy Cal” ways after being knocked off his form.
Now it’s time to work, and it starts with the likes of TyTy Washington and Jaden Hardy. If Kentucky can land one of, if not both, of these 5-star guards, it would be a breath of fresh air to the entirety of the Big Blue Nation. A sign of genuine excitement that has been lacking for well over a year now, no thanks to the pandemic.
That being said, the recruiting world has changed considerably since Antigua was last with Kentucky. From the new transfer rules to professional options to the expected end of the one-and-done rule, recruiting a top-three player in the country is going to be harder now than it was 10 years ago, even when that school is a Blue Blood such as the ‘Cats.
But something clearly had to change and Calipari was forced into some tough decisions. All-in-all, adding Antigua and Coleman feels like a massive win. The swagger won’t come back overnight, but this was the perfect first step in getting there.