Living on the Edge

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Kentucky's John Calipari

<p> John Calipari is attracting big-time talent and winning a ton of games, but can his formula produce a national title?</p>

Here he goes again, loading up the roster with a bunch of rookies and heading off in search of great things. He really has no idea how it’s going to work, because how do you teach a bunch of kids barely old enough to vote how to own the big time?

He may use only a fraction of his celebrated “dribble-drive offense.” (Name another coach whose system has a brand name.) He might employ a bunch of pick-and-roll sets, even though, “I haven’t done pick-and-rolls, maybe ever,” he says. He’ll do some figuring and some tinkering and come up with something that plays strong at the end. Always does. John Calipari stands on the verge of another season with his toes curled over the edge.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He is not afraid to fail,” Villanova coach Jay Wright says. “I admire him for that. He just goes for it every year. He never settles back and plays it conservatively. He just goes out and gets all the best players again.”

Less than six months since his Kentucky Wildcats made history by putting five players into the first round of the NBA Draft, Calipari is back chasing the big prize with another team heavy on youth, big on potential and filled with one-and-done aspirations. Come next fall, he’ll do it all over again, welcoming a class that already has four five-star draft-busters already committed.

Nobody flips off convention like Calipari. Most big-time programs will welcome one or two mercenaries per year, with the aim of integrating them into a well-established framework before they leave early. Every year is a teardown for Calipari. He brings in the studs, asks them to give him one season of crazy effort and promises to be completely real with them after that. The NBA says you’re a first-rounder? Then get your butt into the draft.

The question, after watching last year’s collection of prodigies collapse under an avalanche of bricked 3-pointers in a loss to West Virginia in the regional final, is whether the strategy can ultimately work. Can hitting the refresh button on a roster every year lead to a national championship?

“I think about that a lot,” says Patrick Patterson, who was drafted 14th overall by Houston after leaving following his junior season. “If all of us were back for another year — if we continued and added new people, actually making it to the Final Four and winning a championship.”

Calipari is, if nothing else, a straight pragmatist. If the best high school players all want to play in the NBA after one year of college ball, he isn’t going to stay away from them. In fact, as he often says, if the pros want a player after one season, he’s going to kick them out. Thanks for everything, but we have to make room for the next superstar. Look at how he handles point guards. At Memphis, Derrick Rose begat Tyreke Evans. At UK, John Wall has made way for Brandon Knight. And look out, Brandon, because Marquis Teague is on the way.

Talk to Calipari’s players, and the word you hear repeatedly is “trust.” His offense is not choreographed, although there are “some sets and discipline,” according to junior Darius Miller (yes, Kentucky does have an upperclassman). But there is considerable freedom, and Calipari’s teams have the opportunity to show their skills. If the NBA wonders whether someone can handle, shoot, finish, pass or talk trash, they’ll find out. Think that’s attractive?

“He lets his teams have fun,” says freshman Terrence Jones, who decommitted from Washington to play for Calipari at UK. “They play at a fast pace, with fast breaks. Everybody’s passing. Nobody’s playing selfishly. It doesn’t look like they’re running plays too much out there.

“They’re playing how every basketball player wants to play.”

Jones’ testimonial is pure recruiting gold, but it raises the question about whether players come to Kentucky to be part of a team that wins or to maximize their individual talents and make themselves more marketable for the pro ranks. “He understands what a player’s dream is,” junior DeAndre Liggins says. The problem is that with so much turnover — only four players return from last year’s squad, and only Miller was a significant contributor — each season becomes a reinvention. Calipari knows he has talent, but he has no idea whether that talent will coalesce into something wildly successful. His track record suggests that the Wildcats will indeed be formidable, but not even he is sure.

“This is going to be a fun team to coach,” he said at UK’s Media Day. “It’s just not last year. It’s going to be totally different. For me, the excitement is I’ve got to figure out how does this team play so they’re the best.”

Wright chuckles when he considers Calipari’s annual journey of discovery. “It’s ridiculous what he’s doing,” he says. “It’s off the charts.” Wright says that because he appreciates the value of experience. His Villanova team is a strong blend of youngsters and senior contributors — Antonio Pena is in his fifth year with the program, while Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes are in their fourth; all will start. He even brought back a former walk-on (Russell Wooten) and put him on scholarship so that he could help the team’s younger players adapt. “He’ll be one of the best coaches we have,” Wright says.

The continuity makes it easier to introduce new concepts in practice. Players understand the shorthand, instead of requiring a step-by-step approach. When Calipari says, “There are some times, like wow, and there are other times when it’s like we’re really not close,” he’s talking about the daily uncertainty of working with so much youth. Meanwhile, Wright has the luxury of a continuing story with his vets and a group of newcomers who will benefit from their elders’ guidance. Then again, his team went out in the second round of last year’s tourney, while UK made it to the regional final.

“You can put things in (at practice) whole, and they’re in and done,” Wright says. “You don’t have to introduce it, break it down, teach it and then run it. Putting things in whole makes practice easier, and it makes things better early in the year.”

Calipari doesn’t care much about the first part of the season, because he knows how erratic his team can be for the first month or so. The question for 2010-11 is whether freshman standouts Jones, Knight and (pending NCAA approval) Enes Kanter can figure things out and help Kentucky become a title contender. “Will this team come together and share the ball and do the things they have to do to be their brother’s keeper?” Calipari asks.

And win it all? Last year’s NCAA Tournament loss could be attributed to horrible (4-of-32) 3-point shooting in the Elite Eight loss — “We just shot the ball bad,” Miller says. “It was our worst shooting game of the year.” — or an inability to adjust when the shots weren’t going down. Perhaps a more experienced team would have modified its approach and prevailed. We’ll never know if that particular group would use its experience this year to advance further.

“I tell my mom, ‘What if?’” Patterson says. “We’re not satisfied. It left a bitter taste in our mouth because we were unable to reach our goal.”

Now, it’s on to the next group of new faces at Kentucky. Calipari will push, demand, cajole and — contrary to some people’s opinions — coach to meet the high expectations of the UK program. “He doesn’t get enough credit for being an outstanding coach,” Wright says. It will be a loud, high-energy approach that invites scrutiny and criticism. When the season ends, Calipari will see who should leave for the NBA and hit the recruiting trail.

Odds are the teardown master will have plenty of work to do, and that’s just fine with him.

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