If there is one appropriate way to characterize Kentucky’s 2020-2021 season it’d be this way: “Just about everything that could go wrong, did.” There were player misevaluations, an antiquated style of play, assistant coaches that just didn’t fit.
Once the season did finally come to an end, it was clear that major change would be needed.
Well, we now officially have the first glimpse of what that “major change” looks like.
That’s because a story that has long been reported is now official: Orlando Antigua – a former Illinois assistant, who was the recruiting architect of the best teams of the John Calipari era – is headed back to Lexington. He’ll be joined by fellow Illinois assistant Ron “Chin” Coleman, a plugged in Chicago-area recruiter, who along with Antigua helped construct one of the most talented rosters in college basketball last season in Champaign.
To be clear, these moves don’t alone take away the nasty taste of what happened last season. Nor does it guarantee more championships going forward. But at the same time, what I’ll say is this: This move – swiping the top two assistants and recruiters off one of the five best teams in college basketball last year – isn’t just a major flex. It is one of the most impressive things John Calipari has done since he’s gotten to Kentucky.
Now look, I know that for some of you, the idea of snagging a few assistant coaches isn’t all that big of deal. It’s certainly not bigger than Kentucky winning the 2012 national title, making four Final Fours or even signing a player the caliber of Anthony Davis’ talent.
At the same time, basketball is about talent, plain and simple. It’s what Kentucky had an abundance of in previous years, and something that has seemed to slow to a trickle since shortly after the 2014-2015 season (un-ironically, the last year Antigua was on the roster). Things were low-lighted this past winter when Kentucky went 9-16 overall.
Well, all I can say is, with Antigua and Coleman now in place alongside Lucas, talent should no longer be an issue with Kentucky.
Let’s start with Antigua, because to me, it’s hard to fully express just how big this is for Kentucky. After the debacle that was the 2020-2021 season, it felt like there was only one move that Calipari could make that would truly calm the frustration of Big Blue Nation. That was “go out and get Orlando Antigua.” Everyone knew the role Antigua played in building Kentucky’s great teams of the early to mid-2010’s and it’s not like he’s slowed down since getting to Illinois either. He was the point person on two of the key cogs to the Illini’s Big Ten tournament championship team this year, Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo.
But beyond just the recruiting chops – which we all know about – is a familiarity with Calipari that I think can’t be undersold. Yes, there was a clear talent void on the roster last year, but as I pointed out many times during the season, I was also disappointed in the actual “coaching” going on as well. How often did a player trudge to the sidelines while getting screamed at by Calipari, only to go to the bench and have… no one come over, wrap an around the player and let him know things were going to be OK?
Below is what I tweeted after the Georgia Tech loss in early December:
Something that I think is fair to ask with Kentucky: Some of this is on the players, and some of it is on John Calipari. BUT, Kentucky also has maybe the largest and highest paid support staff in college basketball. What are all these guys doing to make this team better, exactly?
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) December 6, 2020
Among many factors, that is one that I believe wasn’t talked about enough: There was no “good cop” to Calipari’s “bad cop” last season. It wasn’t going to be Jai Lucas (who just arrived last summer, and frankly, probably never got to know the players well during a strange off-season), and it never felt like Tony Barbee or Joel Justus got comfortable taking over that role after Kenny Payne left (I’m not blaming them, it’s just reality). It probably should have been Bruiser Flint, but he too was new last season as well.
In time, I expect it to be Antigua. Yes he is new. And yes, there will be a learning curve with his new players. But it is a role he has seemingly always been comfortable in, dating back to the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins days. And whether it’s intentional or not, one I expect him to take over as he re-associates himself with the lay of the land in Lexington.
Oh, and that’s on top of being one of the most dogged recruiters in the country. He is the exact guy Kentucky needed this off-season.
Then there is Chin Coleman, and while I personally – much like most of Big Blue Nation – don’t know nearly as much about him as Antigua, what I do know are a few things. One, he is a respected recruiter in Chicago, a notoriously tough place to recruit if you don’t know the lay of the land (there is a reason why a laundry list of DePaul and Illinois coaches have failed in those jobs over the last few decades, prior to Illinois’ success this season). And two, that he was very in-demand as well. I had heard rumors that Kansas was trying to hire him to replace Jerrance Howard (who joined Chris Beard’s Texas staff this off-season) and it’s clear Illinois did whatever it could to keep him as well. While Antigua’s arrival is huge, we shouldn’t undersell the fact that Calipari was able to snag Coleman as well, especially from his home state and home state school.
Beyond their individual arrivals however, to me, the bigger picture is much more intriguing: Think about what recruiting can and should look like under the new staff.
Antigua has obviously recruited all over the country, but has a specialty in the New York area, bringing guys like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson to Lexington and Cockburn and Curbelo to Illinois. Coleman’s area of expertise is Chicago, where he landed arguably college basketball’s best player last year (Ayo Dosunmu) and one of its top freshmen (Adam Miller). And Jai Lucas is well-respected in the state of Texas, which might be the hottest hot spot for basketball talent in America right now. He’ll have major competition, especially with the loaded staff Chris Beard just put together in Austin. But Lucas will still get his share of guys.
So from that perspective, just think about what it means for Kentucky: You now have the New York, Chicago and Texas footprints all covered, by arguably the most well-respected recruiter in each, individual area.
Admittedly that doesn’t mean that Kentucky will get every recruit in those three areas specifically (even in Antigua’s heyday at Kentucky he didn’t land every guy UK wanted). And with elite high school players now looking for alternate routes to the pros and the transfer portal now a huge, huge deal, the landscape is certainly changing. But elite high school players will still play college basketball (at least as long as the one and done rule exists) and portal recruiting is no different than any other recruiting. It’s about relationships, trust and keeping your ear to the ground. And Kentucky has three great ones at that.
In the end, there is still work to be done on the actual court to ensure what happened in 2020-2021 never happens again. So if a fan wants to be hesitant about two assistant coaching hires, I get it.
Still, it was clear that last season, among a million things that went wrong, one of them was “Kentucky’s players just weren’t good enough.”
While no one can guarantee anything, I can pretty much promise you that with the new staff in place, that won’t be an issue going forward.