No one embraced the idea of the one-and-done era as quickly as John Calipari did. Even dating back to his days at Memphis, he had no issue in locking down the best freshmen in America even if it meant that A) he’d only get them for one season and B) that he would be on a never-ending run of the most intense and high-profile recruiting battles.
And it worked.
He’s won a national title and been to another national title game, two more Final Four and an Elite 8 in his seven seasons with the Wildcats while churning out some of the NBA’s best talents in the process. The only year he didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in this run was when his best player — Nerlens Noel — blew out his knee in the middle of the season.
People noticed, and the likes of Duke and Kansas tried to follow in Kentucky’s footsteps. Bill Self has won 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles and landed the No. 1 player in the country in two of the last four recruiting classes, but the two Final Fours that he’s reached with the Jayhawks came when his team was led by upper-classmen. Coach K, on the other hand, has been able to replicate that success. After winning the national title in 2010, five of the next six seasons his best player has been a one-and-done star. Kyrie Irving in 2011, Austin Rivers in 2012, Jabari Parker in 2014 and Brandon Ingram in 2016 all had terrific individual success, even if it didn’t lead to success in the NCAA tournament.
But the tipping point in the mind of many observers came when Duke won the 2015 national title in a year where they were led by Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, three guys who were all somewhere between surefire one-and-done prospects and kids that were hoping to have a good enough season to allow them to jump to the NBA after one year. They landed another loaded recruiting class for the following season, and while the impact of guys like Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter was somewhat limited, it was a stepping stone on the way to the 2016-17 season, one where the Blue Devils should enter the year as the consensus No. 1 team in the country.
And they’re not done yet: Duke is still battling Kentucky for the services of Marques Bolden, a 6-foot-10 center with the length, athleticism, strength and low-post game to have an immediate impact while filling a void on both rosters.
That’s where this thing gets interesting.
On Monday, Coach Cal posted an open letter on his website discussing the state of the program. In it was this shot at Duke and Coach K:
“Some of these kids may only stay a year or two. We must recognize that. I refuse to go in a home and paint a picture saying things like, “If you come with us you’ll be taken care of for the rest of your life by the program and by our alums” even though you may only be in school for a year or two. How preposterous does that sound? What if I say that same thing and the young man decides to transfer for one reason or another? Does that still hold true that we’re going to take care of them the rest of their lives? Our approach is to give them the fishing rod and the lures to help them catch fish, not to just give you the fish.”
How was this a jab at the Blue Devils, you ask?
For starters, look at this quote that Hamidou Diallo, a star shooting guard in the Class of 2017 that is being pursued by both programs, game to the Louisville Courier-Journal:
“Kentucky’s pitch was just the NBA thing,” Diallo told the paper. “Duke’s pitch was if you come to Duke, you’re going to be set for life. It’s more than just basketball. [John Calipari’s] pitch was he gets guys ready for the next level. Look at the numbers: it shows. It’s the best place for you if you want to make it to the NBA.”
It goes further than that, because Cal makes a not-at-all-veiled reference to point guard Derryck Thornton, who transferred out of the Duke program after one season. What, exactly, went wrong between the two sides in that relationship is unclear — Duke will tell you that Thornton’s family (his father) had unrealistic expectations for how good Derryck is, the Thorntons will tell you that they were lied to during the recruiting process, a impartial observer may comment on how rushing Derryck into college a year early was probably a mistake — but that doesn’t matter when you’re John Calipari and you have a chance to publicly take a shot at the program that is threatening your dominance on the recruiting trail.
Duke assistant coach and ace recruiter Jeff Capel seemingly responded on twitter later on Monday:
I love it.
Duke and Kentucky are the two biggest brands with the two biggest coaching celebrities in the sport currently competing for the best players in the country every spring and summer. They’re the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25. Of course they aren’t going to like each other. Of course it will stir up a bit of a rivalry.
And if that spills over into the public, it makes the sport just that much more intriguing.
The only downside here?
Duke and Kentucky played each other in the Champions Classic last season.
Which means that we probably won’t get these two squaring off until the Final Four.
And that, my friends, will be awesome.