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Calipari chasing perfection

At his introductory press conference on April 1, 2009, John Calipari wasn't shy about embracing the lofty expectations facing him at his new post as head coach of the University of Kentucky.

Calipari's words at his introductory press conference in 2009 have become more and more prophetic with each passing year.

He spoke about "adding to the wall" of national championships and "recruiting the best of the best." In the weeks that followed, Calipari mentioned "catching UCLA" and later described his ultimate coaching goal:

"Before I leave coaching, I want to coach a team that goes 40-0. And the reason is, they say it can't be done. So let's go try to do it. Let's try to win them all."

At the time, it was easy to quietly dismiss such grandiose plans, especially coming from a personality as large as Calipari's, as nothing more than hyperbole in an attempt to energize a fanbase in dire need of something to believe in.

Fast forward three and a half years, Kentucky is coming off a national championship season that saw the Wildcats go 38-2, separated from Calipari's undefeated dream season by a mere eight points, and his words begin to border on the prophetic.

But as scary as it sounds, Calipari, now in his fourth year, may just be getting started.

For most any college basketball program in the country, landing three top-10 recruits in a single class would be considered an all-time haul. For Calipari, that's just last week. In Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and James Young, Calipari reeled in 5-star recruits Nos. 16, 17 and 18 at UK. In that same span, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana have combined for 20 and his 2013-2014 team may be shaping up to be his best yet in Lexington.

Kentucky is not 'recruiting' anymore. It's not a matter of chance. They are hand-picking.

Make no mistake, Calipari has always been an ace recruiter. He built the UMass program from the ground up and helped a once-proud Memphis program rise from the ashes largely on the basis of his recruiting prowess, attracting marquee names like Marcus Camby, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kendrick Perkins, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans to small-time programs largely void of tradition, facilities or resources.

With another legitimate chance at a Final Four this season, Calipari's Kentucky team in 2013-2014 could be shaping up to be his best yet.

His marriage to Kentucky, the bluest blooded of college basketball royalty, was a match made in heaven. Or hell, depending on your vantage point.

Calipari's most recent recruiting run this fall led to a new list of superlatives:

"The marriage of Calipari with the storied history, resources and relentless passion of Kentucky, though, has created an unassailable monster." – Andy Glockner, Sports Illustrated

"Kentucky is more than a basketball program under John Calipari ---- it's an empire. And there really is no way to stop it." – Jon Rothstein, CBSSports ran with the headline, "Force of Nature."

However you choose to say it, Calipari has changed the game.

At last season's Big Blue Madness, Calipari coined the phrase, the 'Kentucky Effect' but there is no longer any denying that the 'Calipari Effect' has created a ripple effect throughout college basketball. Simply stated, Calipari has changed basketball recruiting and how coaches are forced to go about it.

Think about this for a moment. Calipari is 7-1 against his chief league rival, Florida's Billy Donovan, while at UK. Now, not only do the Cats and Gators account for five of the top 10 committed prospects in the 2013 class, the SEC accounts for 11 of the top 50.

Calipari is a combined 11-1 versus chief rivals Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan at UK.

Despite boasting three of the past seven national champions, many national analysts have pooh-poohed the SEC as a whole for being down in recent years. Now, even perennial bottom feeders like South Carolina, who made a coaching splash with its hire of Frank Martin, have been forced to step its game up in order to avoid becoming the runt of the litter.

Similarly, Calipari is 4-0 against archrival Louisville and coach Rick Pitino, whose recruiting record with the Cardinals has been spotty at best until having to recommit himself to the recruiting trail in recent years.

If a rising tide lifts all boats, then Calipari has forced the hand of his rivals and league foes to recruit at a higher level off the court or risk getting embarrassed on it. It's Calipari's way or the highway. If you don't take it, you won't make it.

Take North Carolina's Roy Williams for instance. After the type of recruiting tear the Tar Heels were on in the mid-2000s, it's hard to envision Williams walking into Julius Randle's home with a box full of conference championship rings. It reeks of desperation. But coaches are forced to react to Calipari, who has made Carolina seem almost irrelevant by comparison.

"The Calipari Effect" has even bled into the professional ranks. Cal has made it cool to play with other great players. The kind of super talent that Calipari has amassed on his UK teams is being mirrored by the formation of NBA super teams.

Much in the same way elite level recruits have sacrificed to play together and accomplish something special at UK, so too have NBA superstars like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in Los Angeles.

And if it's true, as Cal suggests, that recruits only remember the last two or three years, then it's difficult to picture this thing slowing down anytime soon. In fact, it's becoming nearly impossible to negatively recruit against Kentucky.

It's too crowded at Kentucky.

The two players with the fifth and fourth most field goal attempts on the team last season (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) go Nos. 1 and 2 overall in the NBA Draft. Not to mention every sixth man Calipari has coached at UK has also been an NBA draft pick.

Kentucky is a mercenary program and one-and-dones are compromising the integrity of the college game.

Although he's known as Mr. One and Done, Calipari has actually proven at UK that pros come in all shapes and sizes, sending guys to the pros after one (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague), two (Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb), three (Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins) and four (Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller) years.

Yes, but UK's one-and-dones don't go to class.

Davis carried a 3.7 grade point average. Nine players from last year's team finished above a 3.0. Knight carried a perfect 4.0. Because of his ability to hand-pick not only quality players but quality people, Cal doesn't have to take risks on guys with questionable character like Ricardo Ledo, Quincy Miller or C.J. Leslie.

Why do what everyone else is doing? Blaze your own trail.

Because Cal has proven time and time again that his formula works and that his path leads to the pros.

Now, after successfully disarming the rest of college basketball and on the heels of his first national championship, Calipari sounds like he's really ready to unload.

"I'm going to recruit harder than I've ever done," Calipari said. "I'm trying to go harder."

That's bad news for the rest of the recruiting world. It sounds as though Calipari doesn't plan on coming back to the pack anytime soon.

But that's because he isn't competing with the rest of college basketball. He's chasing perfection.

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