By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Since taking the helm of the Kentucky basketball program in 2009, John Calipari has not only returned college basketball's winningest program to the top of the sport. He has also changed the way college basketball fans and media view the game and the players.
Another example of this happened on Monday when Kentucky was picked to win the 2013 SEC Championship by a media panel. That's the same Kentucky that lost all five starters, and its sixth man, from last year's national title team.
Think about that for a second. Before Calipari's arrival in the Bluegrass, who could have imagined that a team that lost its top six players would be picked to win its league the following season. Such a team would assuredly be rebuilding, starting over with a group of new players that would take some time to become competitive in a top-flight league like the SEC.
Instead, Kentucky is picked by the media to win the 2013 SEC title, receiving 17 of the 24 first-place votes available.
What Calipari has been able to do is re-work the rebuilding process. The UK mentor has always said he would take talent over experience any day, and he has stuck with this method. Calipari's recruiting classes at Kentucky have each been ranked first or second in the nation, and he has been able to take some of the nation's top players and mold them into a cohesive unit for three straight campaigns.
Calipari had employed the same method during his last two seasons at Memphis. Using the talents of Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, Calipari had established a program where freshman were the unquestioned stars of the team.
When Calipari took over the program, Kentucky had just finished an NIT campaign, and the future didn't look bright at all. Patrick Patterson would return for the 2009-10 season, but the roster was pretty thin behind the standout forward.
Calipari had an answer for that. He assembled a recruiting class that included John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, among others, restoring talent to a depleted roster.
When the SEC preseason polls came out before the 2009-10 season, coaches and media members were presented with a dilemma that was new to almost everyone – how to vote for a team that’s loaded with talent but has virtually no experience. The media selected Kentucky to win the SEC Eastern Division, as well as the overall league title, despite the inexperienced roster.
However, the media still wasn’t sure what to do with a talented group of freshmen individually, including Wall and Cousins, who had the pedigree but had yet to play a college game. Wall was selected to the All-SEC Second Team in the preseason, and Cousins was not on the first or second team.
That Kentucky team posted a 35-3 record and an Elite Eight appearance, winning the SEC title in the process. Wall was named SEC Player of the Year in the postseason, proving that a talented freshman could be the best player in a premier league.
Prior to the 2010-11 season, the media was not as high on Kentucky as a team. How could the Wildcats survive the losses of so many talented players, five of whom were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft? Kentucky was picked second in the East, and only two media members picked Kentucky to win the SEC title. Despite the fact that Calipari had added another elite recruiting class, including Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, there was little faith that the Wildcats could win the league crown.
The major change in preseason voting that season was that Kentucky’s Brandon Knight, who had never played a college game, was picked First Team Preseason All-SEC. Knight, the new UK point guard, became the first freshman to be selected preseason All-SEC. Media members saw what Wall was able to do as a freshman and they carried that respect into the voting for the 2011 All-SEC team by selecting Knight.
Turns out that the media was right on the team selections, as Kentucky “struggled” to a 10-6 league record, finishing second in the East behind SEC Champion Florida. However, Calipari was able to rally his team at the end of the year, as the ‘Cats finished with a 29-10 record and a Final Four appearance.
Prior to the 2012 season, media members once again had a plethora of young talent at UK to choose from when voting for the preseason poll. Names such as Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Media members picked Kentucky to win the team title, but only Jones, a sophomore, was picked First Team All-SEC. Jones was also chosen as preseason Player of the Year. Of the freshman, only Davis was mentioned, as he was selected to the preseason second team.
As the 2012 season played out, Davis became the nation’s best player, winning the SEC Player of the Year, as well as most of the national player of the year awards. Again, Calipari’s plan to take talent over experience seemed to work, as the 2012 ‘Cats brought home the school’s eighth national title.
When the voting for the 2013 season came out on Monday, new UK center Nerlens Noel, the replacement for Davis, was picked First Team All-SEC by the media, joining Knight as the only freshman to ever receive this honor. Fellow UK freshman Alex Poythress was picked to the second team. This once again showed a changing mindset by the media, selecting a player with no college experience to the SEC First Team.
In fact, since the 2007-08 campaign, only nine sophomores have been picked to the SEC Preseason First Team. Those players were:
2007-08: Richard Hendrix, Alabama; Patrick Beverley, Arkansas
2008-09: Patrick Patterson, Kentucky; Nick Calathes, Florida; A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt
2009-10: Terrico White, Ole Miss
2011-12: Terrence Jones, Kentucky
2012-13: B.J. Young, Arkansas; Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
Add Knight and Noel, and that’s 11 freshman and sophomores from 2006-07 to today that have been picked preseason first-team All-SEC, proving that, in the case of preseason polls, experience counts.
As long as the one-and-done rule remains in effect, Calipari will continue to go with his talented youth movement. His first three Kentucky teams have changed the landscape of college basketball, gathering tons of that young talent and winning at the highest level, to the tune of a 102-15 record, with a national championship and another Final Four appearance. The fact that Calipari continues to put a winner on the court each season, despite significant losses in each of his three campaigns, shows that talent, no matter how young, goes a long way toward winning.
And this new “rebuilding” method has changed the way the media thinks about voting in preseason polls.