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David Climer: John Calipari turns Kentucky into NBA expansion team

1:37 PM, Jan 16, 2012   |    comments
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Commentary by David Climer | The Tennessean

One of the great, time-honored traditions in college basketball is Senior Night at Rupp Arena, where departing players are serenaded with "My Old Kentucky Home."

Given the current trend, maybe Kentucky should figure out a way to grant each freshman class one final bow.

Just past the halfway point in the season, it's painfully clear to everybody else in the SEC that John Calipari has assembled yet another collection of one-and-done talent. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Under Calipari, Kentucky has become a stopover between high school and the NBA for players who are skilled beyond their years.

"When you're out there playing, you're not thinking about whether a guy's a freshman or a senior," Tennessee junior Jeronne Maymon said after the Vols' 65-62 loss to Kentucky on Saturday. "But when you step back and look at it, you realize that some of their best players are freshmen. I give them credit."

In the past two years, Kentucky has offered up seven NBA first-round draft picks -- six of them freshmen. There might never be another recruiting class like Calipari's first at Kentucky. He had four one-and-done players who were first-round picks, including No. 1 draftee John Wall.

But don't undersell this freshman class. It might not have the pro potential of Wall's class, but it is a group that has adjusted to the college game with uncommon ease.

In particular, these freshmen have embraced defense. On Saturday, guard Marquis Teague shadowed UT's Trae Golden ("This was the first game he guarded," Calipari said) and Anthony Davis blocked four shots, upping his season total to 82, one short of the school record.

All told, the 'Cats are holding opponents to 35.6 percent shooting, best in the SEC and second in the nation.

And then there is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who simply was the best player on the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"He is a winning player, and every coach wants to coach a winning player," Calipari said.

Clearly, Calipari was in a giving mood Saturday. He overdosed in his praise of first-year UT Coach Cuonzo Martin, saying he is "so impressed with what Coach Martin has done" and even suggested that UT, at 8-9 overall and 1-2 in the SEC, is "an NCAA Tournament team."

Let's not get carried away. The jury is still out on Martin. And the Vols will struggle to make the NIT.

Besides, since when does Tennessee need an endorsement from Kentucky's coach? I remember Rick Pitino standing before the gathered media in February 1993 and talking about what a great job Wade Houston was doing. Two weeks later, Pitino's Wildcats dismembered the Vols by 61 points.

Back to Calipari: He embraces the moment. He'd better. When you recruit players like this, they're not sticking around long. The NBA awaits.

But nobody reloads quicker and better than Calipari. He already has commitments from two top-20 prospects in this recruiting class, one of whom is 6-foot-8 Alex Poythress of Clarksville. The 'Cats also are in the hunt for other top-tier recruits.

It is a wealth of riches -- young riches, but riches just the same.

David Climer's columns appear on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@tennessean.com.

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