When we look back at the current era of college basketball, I wouldn’t be surprised if we think of it as the Calipari era. As I’ve written before, the Kentucky coach has had an unprecedented run of recruiting success and has now been to three Final Fours in the last four seasons (with a championship in 2012). John Wooden coached in a different era, but he has come to define college basketball in late 60s and early 70s. Might Calipari be thought of in the same light? To find out more, I thought I’d dip into Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out by the coach and Michael Sokolove. Unfortunately, the book did not provide me with much insight at all.
Like any sports book, my expectations were low. I thought I might learn what Calipari thought was the secret to his recruiting success, but all I got were platitudes about how each player was great in their own way. “Players first” is Calipari’s mantra in that he designs his strategies with players’ strengths, which is a sensible course of action. The dribble-drive offense that he prefers is loose enough to accommodate all types of players, but it is best when players can drive to the hoop (which is basically all the Harrison twins could do before hitting buzzer-beating 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament).
In the opening chapters, Calipari describes his system and how he tries to treat players like individuals. This section seemed to meander all over the place, but I can’t blame Calipari for not being a writer. It seemed to me that Sokolove should have been able to polish the coach’s words into something resembling a straightforward narrative, but subjects were tossed around without regard to the reader.
The bulk of the book focuses on the championship season and the following season in which Kentucky was knocked out in the first round of the NIT. Anyone could see that the 2011-12 Wildcat team was special. It helps to have Anthony Davis, whose development could be witnessed on a game-to-game basis. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seemed to be the emotional leader of the team, which makes me think he could be a decent NBA player if he ever learns how to shoot. That team was also boosted by the return of “upperclassmen” like Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. A sophomore is an upperclassman? At Kentucky, he is.
The 2012-13 season was somewhat less successful for Calipari (an understatement). He recruited another fine class of freshmen, but had little sophomoric leadership. Even before Nerlens Noel injured his knee chasing down a transition blocked shot against Florida (a game I happened to be watching), that Kentucky team did not look very good. Calipari claimed that the team seemed to tune him out. Many people had a season of Wildcat schadenfreude. The season did help Kentucky in the long run because players like Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein returned for 2013-14 and contributed to another Final Four run. Amazingly, Poythress and Cauley-Stein are still there!
The last section of the book allows Calipari some time to vent about the NCAA and their rules. This is, by far, the most self-serving section of the book. “Marcus Camby is the greatest guy.” “Derrick Rose is an SAT wizard.” While I agree with Calipari that many of the rules are senseless, the coach doesn’t ask the same questions I would: Why should a basketball player even need to take the SAT? Why aren’t college athletes allowed to be paid? Instead, he rambles on about allowing players an unlimited amount of free food and free flights home. He also whines about being targeted by the NCAA for past violations. To my mind, the NCAA has done more good than harm for Calipari. While I didn’t necessarily expect objectivity from the book, I hoped for a little more self awareness.
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