Calipari’s first Hogs roster proof his biggest change was adopting new recruiting strategy

By Kevin McPherson
on 2024-07-06 01:13 AM

By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Genius is often confused with wisdom. In reality, possessing one of those attributes does not guarantee a seamless symbiosis with the other.

In the case of first-year Arkansas men’s basketball coach John Calipari — his bullet-proof brilliance as a recruiter has gone unmatched spanning decades in the Division 1 game — a change of scenery moving from Kentucky to Fayetteville has sparked an awakening while igniting a still-something-to-prove fuse that goes beyond the expected explosion-spectacle of a 15-year-blueblood-tenured, already-enshrined Naismith Hall of Fame coach leaving for another SEC program.

His inner-conference move that created quakes and tremors felt all over the college basketball landscape may have ultimately set off a more massive jolt when confronting what appears to be a significant shift in how Calipari now views his roster builds. As he begins anew at his fourth D1 program spanning the past four decades, and because he’s enjoyed wild success at his three previous stops, it’s no coincidence that his latest vision to solve a 5-year drought when it comes to deep-run success in March Madness is part of his reclamation project as a 65-year-old coach who’s still hungry to finish seasons with elite levels of success.

His resume is iconic — it includes one national championship, three national title game appearances, six Final Fours, countless conference championships, multiple national and league coach of the year honors — but after you unpack all of that it’s still impossible to ignore the extra baggage, which is a 1-3 NCAA Tournament record (including two embarrassing first-round upset losses) spanning the last five seasons (2019-20 through ’23-24) that he brings with him to Northwest Arkansas.

His well-chronicled unswerving devotion to, and mastery of, stock-piling and re-loading his programs with 5-star, one-and-done high school prospects over the years has taken more than one detour in the past three months since he was named Head Hog in early April. Specifically, Calipari’s acknowledgement that coveting the best players from the transfer portal combined with a greater focus on player retention — in concert with pursuing fewer 5-star high school studs — will be key components to his recruiting and roster-building philosophy moving forward.

If the SEC coaching switch was a tough call to make for him, moving forward in this new direction must be too, because for decades Calipari’s system worked even if it did not yield multiple national championships. The genius prospect-pied-piper proved for years to also be among the wisest results-verified sages in basketball when marrying together all his recruiting wins, spectacular results on the court in the regular season followed by deep postseason runs, and sending players to lucrative NBA careers. His way was the envy of most college programs for decades.

But Calipari’s flow from one giant success to the other has been noticeably disrupted lately thanks to the aforementioned early Big Dance exits, forcing him to recently autopsy those poor finishes and re-evaluate his process to determine what will be necessary to achieve more elite results in his new endeavor at Arkansas.

Calipari’s conclusion that it’s time to embrace a new world in which most D1 programs are loading up on veteran transfer players AND/OR retaining and developing players long-term is nuanced by his risky determination to drill down to “eight or nine” top-shelf rotation players while backfilling his rosters — “10, 11, and 12” — with what are effectively walk-on practice players.

Again, Calipari changing course on his roster-building strategy has been as blunt a move as his on-his-own-terms divorce from Kentucky, and with the construction of his first Arkansas roster seemingly complete he’s paid more than just lip service as he’s remained true to the new cause with precision and execution. He’s walking the talk, and so far his genius in recruiting has not been derailed by this new way of assembling a roster. It may be the just-right process to once again merge the recruiting genius with March supremacy. 

Nine top-shelf scholarship / NIL-money prioritized players are on campus with three walk-on-caliber practice players recently brought in as a collective reflection of Calipari’s biggest talking points: Balancing his roster with fewer incoming freshmen (only three, but all are 5-stars in guards/wings Boogie Fland, Karter Knox, and Billy Richmond); prizing two elite transfer-portal additions (all-league seniors in combo guard Nellie Davis and big man Jonas Aidoo); embracing four “retention” pieces (three former Wildcats that followed their coach to Fayetteville in sophomore guard DJ Wagner, junior 3/4-combo forward Adou Thiero, and sophomore big man Zvonimir Ivisic, plus the lone returning Hog in stretch-4 Trevon Brazile); and backfilling the roster with three scout team pieces (D2 transfer guard Melo Sanchez and freshmen guards Jaden Karuletwa and Ayden Kelley).

Stopping at nine legitimate two-deep rotation pieces not only reflects his stated belief that adding more quality talent 10-through-12 would not only NOT unseat a preferred top 9 rotation, but it would likely take the team down a path of having unhappy campers miffed at a lack of playing time while potentially causing chemistry problems throughout the team.

The talent on his first roster is unquestioned — the Razorbacks boast arguably the best transfer class in the nation along with a top 5ish-rated high school class — and there’s a 2-to-1 edge of quality D1 experience (six players) compared to the quality haul of incoming freshmen (three).

That experienced group brings an impressive resume of D1 success: Davis was a conference co-player of the year last season, led his previous team to an NCAAT Final Four two seasons ago, was arguably the No. 1 prospect in a portal filled with thousands of transfers; Aidoo was an all-league performer and elite defender for SEC champion and Elite Eight finisher Tennessee last season, and he was generally ranked top 10ish among portal options in the offseason; Brazile was a preseason first-team All SEC pick and a projected NBA Draft lottery pick last fall, and despite battles with injuries and inconsistency could be in line for a stellar season in his upcoming fourth college campaign; Thiero is an athletic manchild who displayed defensive versatility in his two previous seasons with Calipari at Kentucky, and he’s garnering some 2025 NBA Draft first-round projections; Wagner enters year two with Calipari following a freshman season of solid production despite battling an ankle injury; Ivisic packed a lot of promise in only 15 games played as a freshman last season with Calipari, and at 7-2 his talent and versatility have also garnered some 2025 NBA Draft projections.

As for the freshmen, two were 2024 McDonald’s All Americans / 5-star prospects in Fland and Knox who both have received 2025 NBA Draft projections as potential one-and-dones while Richmond comes in as a national Top 25-rated, composite 5-star prospect.

From a positional standpoint, that group of nine adds plenty of size, length, athleticism, skill diversity, and versatility to feel good about options at the 1 (6-4 Wagner, 6-2 Fland, 6-4 Davis), the 2 (Davis and 6-6 Knox), the 3 (6-8 Thiero, Knox, 6-5 Richmond), the 4 (6-10 Brazile, Thiero), and the 5 (6-11 Aidoo, 7-2 Ivisic, Brazile).

There’s plenty of offensive firepower, especially in the backcourt, and several players with the chops to defend multiple positions. All nine have potential for some kind of all league recognition.

The trio of scholarship walk-ons offers warm bodies to get through practices with the ability to run 5-on-5 live scrimmaging, and they offer some level of insurance if a rash of injuries, illness, or other issues arise to deplete the availability of the first nine.

If you’re seeking to grade Calipari and this roster based on individual strengths, collective team strengths, and staying true to the new gameplan, it’s an easy A.

But, there are question marks regarding a lack of physical presence on the frontline, the possibility for a shortage of efficient three-point shooting, and lack of more capable role players outside the top 9 in the event of attrition for whatever reason(s). One lingering roster question remains: With a 13th scholarship still open, could Calipari add a late impact-caliber player should something fall into his lap (i.e. late transfer portal addition, or late quality incoming freshman wiggling out of his signed national letter of intent with another school, or a reclassifying high school player, or a hidden-gem international prospect). These things sometimes play out later in the summer and into the early fall.

For now, this feels like the kind of roster that can garner preseason national Top 10-15 rankings as well as preseason SEC Top 3-4 projections, and certainly it appears to be loaded with multiple 2025 NBA Draft picks. When the dust settles, can Calipari get back to making runs beyond the first weekend of the NCAAT? The last time he managed that was in ’18-19 when he guided Big Blue Nation to the Elite Eight.

Despite his recent humbling postseason exits, everything else had mostly been humming along nicely for one of the best coaches in college basketball history, and looking ahead this new vision offers a real counter narrative to the notion his move to Arkansas was effectively a final ride into the sunset while cashing in some additional big paydays.

Cal has a plan, and it seems to be coming together nicely as we look at it from this early July vantage point.

(Last updated: 2024-07-06 01:13 AM)