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College Basketball Insider

Winning with freshmen not as easy as John Calipari once made it look

John Calipari has never been on the so-called hot seat as a college coach, and he never will be because he's good at his job and worth every penny Kentucky pays him, if not more.

But his approach to doing things?

Yeah, that's being questioned by some these days.

Best I can tell, it's the result of last season's Wildcats missing the NCAA tournament and this season's Wildcats starting with three losses in their first 12 games despite being ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press and Coaches polls. Suddenly, folks aren't certain that enrolling recruiting classes filled with prospects who likely won't spend more than one year in college is a wise way to do things because it leads to an endless cycle of rebuilding. Never mind that Calipari's first three years at Kentucky produced a trip to the Elite Eight (2010), a trip to the Final Four (2011) and a national championship (2012) courtesy of three different teams whose top two players were freshmen. Sports fans have short memories, you know? So most UK fans -- in fairness, it's probably not most; but it's definitely some -- are focusing only on what they've witnessed recently, which is the winningest program in Division I history going 13-9 in its past 22 games.

"I'm used to us being up 20 at half [in past seasons]," Calipari said recently. "[But it] doesn't appear like that'll be this team. We're going to be in dogfights every night."

And, presumably, on Saturday afternoon.

That's when Calipari's 18th-ranked Wildcats will play Rick Pitino's sixth-ranked Louisville Cardinals at Rupp Arena in a game that'll be televised nationally by CBS. It's a renewal of a rivalry between programs and coaches, a non-conference gem, a scheduled 40 minutes that'll either calm UK fans or reinforce the growing theory that winning big with an inexperienced roster isn't nearly as simple as Calipari made it look when he paired John Wall with DeMarcus Cousins (2010), Brandon Knight with Terrence Jones (2011), and Anthony Davis with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2012).

Those three teams were all special.

The 2012 team should be considered one of the best in recent history considering it won a championship and finished 38-2 with just two single-digit losses. The 2010 team was probably the nation's best that season even though it lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. And that 2011 team that lost to Kemba Walker's UConn Huskies in the national semifinals? "Should've won the national title," Calipari said. "That team really became a good team. We were the best team in 2011 at the end. [But] Connecticut had the best player."

As I've mentioned before, I think those three UK teams -- especially the Wall/Cousins team and the Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist team -- distorted reality and made winning with freshmen look easier than it really is. But I also think recent results have distorted reality in the other direction, because though last season's team was never great it would've likely made the NCAA tournament if Nerlens Noel remained healthy, and these Wildcats are only disappointing relative to preseason expectations considering they're still ranked 12th at KenPom.com thanks to an offense rated fifth nationally in efficiency. In other words, winning with a freshman-heavy roster probably isn't as simple as Calipari made it look in his first three years at Kentucky, but it's probably not as difficult as it's looked recently, either. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. But the problem is that hardcore fans -- and UK has more hardcore fans than anybody -- don't operate in the middle. They live in the extremes -- ecstatic when things are going well, unhinged when they're not, which is why Saturday's game against Louisville, and this season in general, will play a massive role in how Calipari's recruiting approach (that leads to an unprecedented level of turnover within his program) is perceived by the fans who follow UK most closely.

Is this a great way to succeed in college basketball?

Or a severely flawed way?

The answer might be determined by what happens over the next three months.

"At the end of the day, you can't change how we started [this season] … but you can change how you approach the end," Calipari said. "And [the end is] how you'll be remembered."

 
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