When Kentucky hired John Calipari as its new basketball coach, the rest of the SEC probably responded with a collective “uh-oh.”
Despite Kentucky’s recent basketball malaise, it still has won 33 more conference championships than any other SEC team. Combine that tradition with Calipari’s recruiting track record, and you have a daunting challenge for the rest of the conference.
The challenge should be welcomed.
A conference often overshadowed by football and just as often underrated at the national level had an off-year in 2008-09 when only three teams qualified for the NCAA tournament and none advanced as far as the Sweet 16. The league needed a jolt.
Calipari and Kentucky can provide it.
Calipari already has signed point guard Eric Bledsoe, convinced former Memphis recruit DeMarcus Cousins to follow him to Kentucky, and kept Daniel Orton, who signed with former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie. All three are high school All-Americans.
The recruits haven’t overshadowed all the returnees. All-SEC forward Patrick Patterson has postponed his pro career for at least another year.
There’s the potential for more good news at Kentucky. High-scoring guard Jodie Meeks hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning for another college season, and the Wildcats are still in the running for John Wall, the nation’s No. 1-rated point guard.
How good could Kentucky be?
“If Meeks comes back — and there are still some things pending (in recruiting) — Kentucky could be a potential Final Four team,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “Right now, they’re the favorite in the SEC.”
Kentucky the favorite in the SEC: Sounds like old times, huh? But in a way, it’s not like old times at all.
Basketball was a second-class citizen at too many conference schools when Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp was having his way with the SEC in the 1950s and 60s. Basketball matters more now, and the programs are writing the checks to prove it. The expectations have been raised as well.
When Pearl was hired at UT, there was nothing cryptic about his mission statement. He wanted to be competitive with the best programs in the conference. He accomplished that faster than almost anyone could have imagined. His teams are 7-1 against Florida, which won back-to-back national titles during those four years, and repeatedly have finished ahead of the Wildcats in the SEC standings.
Finishing ahead of Kentucky is about to become more difficult. As Pearl pointed out following Calipari’s hiring, “The bar has been raised.”
And the entire SEC could benefit from it.
The best players don’t just want to play for the best teams. They want to play against the best players.
Why do you think the Big East has become so powerful in basketball? Why do you think the SEC usually is so strong from top to bottom in football?
This isn’t just about college. It’s about the pros. If an offensive tackle can hold his own against an SEC defensive end, he can make a name for himself with NFL scouts.
No one is more aware of this than Pearl, who has scheduled accordingly. By playing a demanding non-conference schedule, he’s helping more than his RPI. He’s using it as a recruiting tool.
“We even talk to the prospects about who they’re going to play,” Pearl said.
Calipari has proved he can recruit the top prospects. He could help the rest of the SEC recruit them, too.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.