John Calipari proved he’s pretty good at Square One.
Now, looks like he’s going to have to prove it all over again.
Nearly one year ago, Calipari was Kentucky’s new basketball coach, inheriting a proud but battered program that was fresh off a two-year Billy Gillispie bruise, with a fractured fan base and a questionable roster.
Calipari more than rallied the base. He schmoozed the boosters. He soothed the sponsors. He wowed the fans. He Twittered to more than a million followers. Best of all, most of all, he lowered the fish nets and caught some outrageously talented players.
So outrageously talented that, even after Kentucky’s 73-66 loss to West Virginia in the NCAA East Region finals, it looks like Calipari is going to have to reprise his role.
John Wall is gone. The fab freshman point guard looks like he’s the best bet to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft. Wall said Saturday night he wasn’t thinking about his future plans. But there are plenty of others thinking about his future plans, and they can’t imagine one in which he’ll return to the UK campus.
Patrick Patterson is gone. There’s a reason the junior forward from Huntington, W.Va., earned his degree in three years. There’s a reason Patterson chose to participate in Senior Night activities earlier this month. Given his three years here, no one can begrudge Patterson’s inkling that now is the time to move on.
DeMarcus Cousins is gone. Oh, West Virginia proved there can always be surprises. Big Cuz still has some rungs to climb on the maturity ladder. But NBA types no doubt drool over what a man with Cousins’ size and athletic ability around the rim could do at the next level. Those types write checks.
Eric Bledsoe is thinking of going, though his sub-par Saturday night performance in Syracuse might give him something to think about in that regard. Even Daniel Orton, who didn’t start a game, has said he’s considering trading in his college career for a shot at the play-for-pay.
Those are four of Kentucky’s five starters, and five of the top six players in Calipari’s regular rotation. Only junior-to-be Darius Miller appears to be a sure bet to be wearing whatever uniform Nike has the Cats adorn next season.
Not to fear, of course. Calipari gets players. That’s his strength, his calling card. He’s a master recruiter/motivator, who has a knack for getting the best players — Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to John Wall — to sign on the bottom line.
Yet, given the success produced by his latest collection of talent, even Calipari might have trouble following in his own footsteps.
Brandon Knight, the Florida point guard who many think will end up in Lexington, is a dazzling point guard. But is Knight as good as a Wall?
Plus, there is no potential holdover that will bring to next season what Patrick Patterson brought to the Wildcats this season.
Great programs don’t rebuild, of course. They re-load. Calipari has proven he can provide the ammunition. He’ll keep the supply lines open.
But even without a national title, or even a Final Four, the Kentucky head coach has given himself a hard act to follow.