It’s no question John Calipari has put his stamp on the University of Kentucky basketball program since he arrived in Lexington on April Fool’s Day in 2009.
Always known as a master recruiter at the University of Massachusetts and later at the University of Memphis, Calipari lacked the experience of being a head coach at a big-time program, although he spent a short time in the professional ranks with the New Jersey Nets and as an assistant coach at the University of Kansas early in his career.
His transition to big-time college basketball in the lead chair began almost immediately. He guided the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in his first season, the national semifinals one year later and led Kentucky to its first national title in 14 years this past season.
He’s undefeated at Rupp Arena and continues to recruit top-notch talent on a yearly basis. To be the best, Calipari recruits the top players, many of whom have been of the one-and-done variety, a trend that began when the National Basketball Association instituted the age limit.
Calipari is an outspoken critic of the rule made to prevent high school players from pulling a LeBron James after high school, but he also wants young men to succeed in his players’ first program. Part of that progression includes becoming a professional basketball player.
In addition to bracing the tradition at Kentucky, Calipari has been raking up victories — 102 in 116 games — but he’s also produced NBA draft picks faster than any other coach in the history of the program.
In three seasons, nine of Calipari’s former players have had their names called by NBA Commissioner David Stern on the last Thursday in June, including a school record five first-round selections in 2010. Included in that crop of draftees was John Wall, the first top pick in the history of the program three years ago.
Four were picked 12 months ago, including two in the opening round. On Thursday night, six players, including anticipated top pick Anthony Davis, will likely be chosen, giving Calipari 15 in three years as coach of the Wildcats.
“I am trying to see if I can figure out how this is going to play out,” the Kentucky coach said earlier this month. “The good news is, all six will be drafted. It’s just a matter of where they will be drafted.”
Calipari’s nine and soon to be 15 draft picks are almost more than former Kentucky and current Louisville coach Rick Pitino produced in his nine-year tenure. It’s almost as many draftees than Pitino, Tubby Smith and Billy Gillespie had combined from 1993-2009. During that time span, 16 former Cats were drafted, with 11 of those first-round selections.
The most notable was Jamal Mashburn at No. 4 in 1993. Antoine Walker was the No. 6 pick in the 1996 draft. Tony Delk and Walter McCarty also were first-round picks that season, while Mark Pope was picked in the second round.
Smith had six former players chosen in the draft with all but one of those — Keith Bogans — selected in the first round. Gillispie’s two players — Joe Crawford and Jodie Meeks — were second-round selections.
While Calipari has put Kentucky back on the map in the collegiate circles, he’s also giving NBA teams plenty of options to choose from in the draft.