John Calipari’s cycle of playing one-and-dones might be pure madness

LEXINGTON — The smoke machine and sparkles shot off while Kentucky’s latest No. 1 recruiting class under coach John Calipari was introduced one-by-one and made their way down a runway flanked by big screens fit for a concert.

The hype is unmatched at Friday’s annual Big Blue Madness; no program in the country does its intro to basketball season better. It marked the 14th time during Calipari’s tenure the Wildcats have brought in the nation’s No. 1 or No. 2 class, according to 247Sports.

When the smoke and sparks clear, the reality is Calipari is trying to win with a prototype roster from a decade ago.

Forward Justin Edwards, center Aaron Bradshaw and guard D.J. Wagner highlight the eight-player freshman class, and they seem destined to join the list of UK’s best one-and-done players who recorded videos that were played over the video boards at Rupp Arena.

That roll call of former players from John Wall to Anthony Davis to Karl-Anthony Towns included DeMarcus Cousins and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who were present and played a subtle reminder to how it used to be.

Nostalgia aside, the Cats should be very good. They’ll compete at a high level and will likely stay ranked for most of the season.

That alone is not good enough at UK.

Is this group capable of getting the Cats back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015? The current landscape of college basketball says no. And while Calipari’s lifetime contract at UK means he’s not in any real jeopardy of being forced out anytime soon, another failed postseason could shape his future in Lexington.

At this point, UK fans don’t want to win another NBA draft lottery night. And the rumbling over Calipari’s approach could grow louder without a successful season matched with a deep NCAA Tournament run.

The Cats haven’t made it out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend since 2019, their loss to Kansas State in the second round last season assured that.

Their loss to No. 15 seed St. Peter’s in 2022 ranks among the worst tournament losses in program history. That followed a 9-16 record during the 2020-21 season which, because of another young roster and COVID-19 decimating the summer when they usually get acclimated to college basketball, was Calipari’s first losing season since his first year of coaching in 1988-89 at Massachusetts.

It’s with that backdrop that Calipari will rely on another young team to restore the glory during a time where having older players is the proven formula to make the Final Four.

Only four freshmen have cracked the starting lineup of the past 10 national champions. That list includes UConn’s Alex Karaban last season, but before him you’d have to go back to 2019, when Kihei Clark started for Virginia. (It’s no better on the runners-up roster, either, as Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs is the only freshman starter of the past eight seasons.)

UK caught a break when Tre Mitchell transferred from West Virginia after former coach Bob Huggins’ abrupt resignation/termination. Mitchell, a 6-foot-9 graduate, not only brings his experience to an otherwise-green roster, he brings a skill set that’s a game changer.

He’s a stretch-4 who shot 36.4% from 3-point range last season for the Mountaineers. He’ll open a wealth of possibilities for the Cats on offense, simply by ensuring the lane won’t stay clogged. Calipari also hinted during UK’s gold-medal run through the GLOBL Jam in July that he may use Mitchell at the 5 in spots.

Senior guard Antonio Reeves, who defended his title winning the 3-point shooting contest, decided to return to school in June after withdrawing his name from the NBA draft.

Mitchell and Reeves are the extent of UK’s experience. Sophomore guard Adou Thiero could end up in the starting lineup, but he’s largely untested after appearing in 20 games as a freshman.

We’ve been through this before with Kentucky. Buy into the highly ranked freshmen early only to be highly disappointed late in the postseason.

Continuing this cycle is not quite insanity, but it’s Big Blue madness, indeed.

More: See Zvonimir Ivisic, Kentucky freshman center from Croatia, introduced at Big Blue Madness

Reach sports columnist C.L. Brown at [email protected], follow him on X at @CLBrownHoops and subscribe to his newsletter at Reference

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