Winner takes all

The University of Kentucky boasts the winningest basketball program in the history of the NCAA.

The Wildcats all-time percentage of .758 says it all; winning is everything.

So, when second year head coach Billy Gillespie was dismissed following a .597 campaign (the worst Wildcat record since Basil Hayden’s squad went 3-13 in 1927) no one in Lexington was too surprised. After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, when the team was serving on NCAA probation, the UK brass determined that a new leader was necessary.

The school’s athletic director, Mitch Barnhardt, said that the “dedicated and passionate fans deserve a coach that understands that this is not just another coaching job”, and UK President Lee Todd compared the head coaching position to that of the president, saying that “nobody really writes out what you have to do. Philosophically, we wanted someone that represented the entire Big Blue Nation”.

Gillespie came up short on both accounts.

And so an opening for head coach of the nation’s most prestigious program was born.

$31 million dollars later and John Calipari was named the 22nd head coach in Kentucky history. With a proven track record in both winning and producing NBA draft picks, Calipari appeals to both fans and prospective players and now, almost instantaneously, so too does Kentucky.

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While losing commitments from Gillespie recruits, Kentucky has been able to secure the services of Calipari’s Memphis recruit DeMarcus Cousins, the 6’10” No. 1-ranked center in the nation. He joins forward Josh Hood and center Daniel Orton as the school’s 2009 recruiting class to date.

Don’t be surprised however, if one or more of the nation’s other top recruits join Calipari and company in Lexington. The recruiting wizard had also convinced elite forward Xavier Henry to sign a letter of intent with Memphis, which contained an omission clause should Coach Cal re-locate. He had also used his success in building the careers of superstar guards like Dajuan Wagner and Derrick Rose to seduce John Wall – the nation’s top guard prospect whose game draws comparisons to Rose – into listing Memphis as his front-runner. Add to this that Lance Stephenson, a player deemed ready to play since age 14, has delayed the announcement of where he plans to commit following the coaching change, and next year’s Wildcat squad has the potential to be very special.

Should Kentucky manage to retain sophomore star Patrick Patterson, who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds under Gillespie and scoring machine Jodie Meeks, who is currently testing the NBA draft waters, then you could very well be looking at the pre-season favourite for the national championship.

A lot could happen between now and the start of the 2009-10 season. The current standouts could return or they could leave, and the top recruits could elect to become Wildcats or ply their trade elsewhere, but regardless of what happens Kentucky will be competitive, and their loyal fans will be both proud and supportive of their new leader.

John Calipari is the man for the job. The players will soon follow, and Kentucky will regain its place amongst the greatest programs in the nation, and if Wall, Stephenson, or Henry joins him then they could very well be the national champions come this time next year.

Whether it happens this coming year or not, with Calipari at the helm you can be sure that it will happen sooner than later.

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