NEW ORLEANS – Blue-chip players flock to John Calipari, eager to sharpen their skills — to say nothing of their resumes — in what's become a de facto NBA apprenticeship. These "one-and-dones" won't have diplomas when their blink-and-you'll-miss-it time at the beloved alma mater is done.
But they'll have jobs in the "association" and the fat contracts that go with them, which is what they were after in the first place.
"If you're a player that wants to win and that's looking to get on to the next level, Kentucky is the place," said Derrick Rose, one of nine Calipari players to go in the first round of the last four NBA drafts. "... Getting guys to the next level, his resume speaks for itself."
And Calipari makes no apologies for it.
He doesn't like the "one-and-done" rule, which essentially forces players to spend a year in college. He's even suggested ways to change it.
Until it's changed, however, it's a fact of life in college basketball, and no one has used it to his advantage more than Calipari.
His latest cadre of NBA-bound stars, led by 19-year-old freshman phenom Anthony Davis, will play Kansas for the NCAA title Monday night. It's the second time in five years Calipari has made it to the last game of the season. This also is Kentucky's second straight trip to the Final Four, the first time the Wildcats have done that since they played in three straight NCAA title games from 1996-98.
Of Calipari's last seven teams at Kentucky and Memphis, all but one has reached the regional final or better. The lone "disappointment" was the 2009 Tigers, Calipari's last Memphis team, and they lost in the round of 16.
"There's only two solutions to it: Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting, or I can try to convince guys that should leave to stay for me," Calipari said. "You have a young man that can leave after a year and he's going to be drafted in the first five picks, first 10 picks. How do you tell him to stay?"
Calipari takes plenty of grief for his liberal use of the "one-and-dones." Some see him as a mercenary, amassing as much talent as he can for one spectacular run and barely taking time to wish them good luck before he's ushering the next crop of phenoms through his revolving door. Others view him as a symbol of all that's wrong with college athletics, a mockery of the concept of "student-athletes."
"I marvel at what John does. I couldn't do it," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after Kentucky beat the Cardinals on Saturday night. "I can't say hello and goodbye in seven months; it's just not me."
But just as Tom Izzo has built a dynasty on defense at Michigan State and Mike Krzyzewski has a seemingly limitless supply of shooters at Duke, Calipari has studied the game, looked at his options and found a system that works for him.
And his players.
Starting with Marcus Camby in 1996, Calipari has produced 13 first-round draft picks. Two, Rose and John Wall, went No. 1. Davis likely will join them this summer when Kentucky is expected to match — or better — the five first-rounders it had in 2010.
"He's going to push you to be your best every night," Wall said. "He does a lot of stuff to make sure the team is together, that we're bonding together and getting along. Either you buy in and go with the team flow, and he's got a lot of All-Americans to play like that, buying in to one team concept. If not, you probably won't play."
That's the truth often overlooked about Calipari. Distasteful as his methods are to some, there is an old-school honesty to them.
Ask any of his players, be it Davis, Rose, Wall or the guys who don't get off the bench, and they've all gotten the same speech: When they're at Kentucky, it's all about the name on the front of the jersey. Calipari doesn't promise shots, he doesn't promise minutes, he doesn't promise starting jobs. He insists his phenoms do the dirty work on defense — "If you don't play defense, you're not allowed to play," future first-rounder Terrence Jones said Sunday — and has no room for egos or personal agendas.
Accept all that and, when the time is right, whether it's after one season, two or four, Calipari will have you ready for the NBA.
"Cal, he's just a great coach," Rose said. "He makes you have that mentality where it's you against the world. He's good with one-and-done players, making sure everybody comes in and does their job, making sure they take care of their schoolwork and doing their work on the court. In practice, he wants 100 percent every time."
And for anyone who dismisses Calipari's success as a given with his star-studded rosters, what he does is a lot tougher than simply rolling the ball out after his phenoms sign their letters of intent.
Darius Miller, one of Kentucky's few upperclassmen, has had 40 teammates in his four years. Try adapting to a dozen teammates in their temperamental late teens or early 20s, let alone three times that many. Coaches groan at the prospect of a rebuilding year, but Calipari has one every single season. Sure, his ingredients may be better, but he's still starting essentially from scratch.
Yet Calipari has found a way to make it work, for his teams and his players.
"I'm not here for a popularity contest. I coach young people," Calipari said. "I'm worried about those 13. I'm worried about their families. I'm worried about the campus. I'm worried about the city I live in, the state I live in. Other than that, I'm not."
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City and AP freelance writer Ian Harrison in Toronto contributed to this report.
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