By Dr. John Huang
If you’ve been around Kentucky Basketball for the past decade, you’ve undoubtedly heard by now that “Kentucky is a Player’s First Program.” You’ve been lectured ad nauseum about the “Kentucky Effect” and bombarded with the fact that “Kentucky isn’t for everyone.”
There’s a new John “Calipari-ism” floating around out there lately. Coach Cal’s latest slogan of the day is that players who play for Kentucky are “built different”—implying that anyone who plays for the University of Kentucky has already somehow set themselves apart from the pack.
“Our fans have heard me talk a lot about what it means to me to be ‘Built Different,’” Calipari said when commenting on UK’s three newest signees—Daimion Collins, Nolan Hickman, and Bryce Hopkins. “When you talk about this fall class, you’ve got three kids who are built to play here at Kentucky. They wanted to be a part of the culture. They wanted to play against other really good players. They didn’t need any promises or guarantees—only the promise that this is going to be the hardest thing they’ve ever done and that we will challenge them to become the best version of themselves.”
Those of us within the BBN are used to hearing this type of rhetoric from Coach Cal. I thought it’d be interesting to see what an outside expert thinks. Are Kentucky players really built different? Or is this just part of the blue Kool-Aid we’re all thirsting for this time of the year.
“When you recruit, you’re recruiting players who have become commodities already,” explained ESPN analyst Jay Bilas on a Zoom call earlier today. “A lot of Kentucky fans got their noses out of joint when I said, ‘You don’t produce pros, you recruit them. That’s not a knock on anybody. That’s true of every program. In six or eight months of being on a campus—whether it’s Kentucky’s or anybody else’s—there’s only so much you can do.”
In other words, Bilas seemed to emphasize that in this current one-and-done culture, it doesn’t really make that much difference where you go to college. Of course, coaching makes a difference, but in the limited time the players spend on campus, the benefits of one school over another are greatly exaggerated. Bilas recalled that this discussion came up a lot with Tyler Herro—and the mistaken assumption that he became a lottery pick and a pro prospect for the sole reason of where he went to college.
“I don’t believe that’s completely true,” Bilas admitted. “Tyler Herro’s been a pro a lot longer than he was ever a college player. How much credit do the Miami Heat get, and their coaching staff, and their developmental group?”
I’m convinced that “Built Different” is simply another clever recruiting ploy by Calipari—someone who has shown himself to be a promotional genius. Year after year—no matter the circumstances—Coach Cal somehow comes through with a top-five class. Of course the Kentucky name still packs a powerful punch. But it takes a master marketer to keep landing the big ones.
“College coaches have to recruit, and some of their recruiting has to do with sales—selling their development abilities,” Bilas acknowledged. “I don’t think programs produce pros—I think they recruit pros. The idea is that if you get recruited by Kentucky, you’re pro caliber. That’s the mindset. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.”
For Kentucky’s sake, I think it’s a very good thing. You’re never going to win Championship Number Nine without elite talent coming through Lexington. It’s almost comforting to know that whether Calipari develops them or not isn’t nearly as important. What is important is that he keeps signing the studs who can deliver the hardware.
“It’s business,” Bilas concluded. “And there’s nobody better at this business than John [Calipari].”