John Calipari knows the road all too well — and no, not the cobblestoned pavement and barbecue smoke-filled scene of Beale Street.
Calipari, Kentucky’s basketball coach, is quite familiar with the journey to the NCAA Tournament.
On Sunday, for the ninth time, Calipari had a team within reach of a Final Four. The Wildcats fell in dramatic last-second shot fashion to No. 1 seeded North Carolina, 75-73. But like the entire 2016-17 season, Kentucky was led by star-studded freshmen guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, who finished with 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Although not yet confirmed, both players are expected to turn professional and become one-and-done talents — players who turn pro after just one year at school — a common theme among Calipari teams.
For the first time in school history, Missouri basketball will have one of those next year in Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s top-ranked player, who committed to the Tigers last Friday.
Referencing notes he’d seen about the commitment on Twitter, Jim Blanton, a Kentucky fan since birth from Huntington, W.Va., smiled.
“I can see the Missouri fans are more excited already,” Blanton said. “The fans are going to come out and watch more basketball, it’s going to help the program and it’s going to help recruiting more.
“But you better win.”
Since his arrival in Lexington, Calipari has won the national championship once, in 2012. You may have heard of the one-and-done players on that team — Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Those are two of the 18 one-and-done players Calipari has had at Kentucky, and hearing that makes Blanton proud.
The 47-year-old Blanton loved the 2011-12 roster, as he did this year’s. Love, though, doesn’t do his thoughts about Calipari recruiting the country’s best players justice.
“Why would you not do that?” Blanton asked.
North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams concurs.
At his press conference ahead of Sunday’s game, Williams was asked if there was a difference in his approach to recruiting as compared to Calipari.
“Yeah, there’s a difference,” Williams said, “he got (the freshmen) and I didn’t.
“I recruit the same guys. I recruited Bam (Adebayo) for a long time. I just thought he was great. I went in to see Malik (Monk). De’Aaron (Fox), we tried to recruit him early but didn’t think we were getting there. Jason Tatum, I recruited Jayson Tatum for three years as hard as I could. That’s the only difference is they got them and we didn’t. We’ve got to try to figure out a way to compete with them and go from there.”
With the hiring of Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant, as well as the fact the Porter family is from Columbia, competing for Porter Jr. was unique for Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin. Blanton’s question remains whether or not the Tigers will succeed like Kentucky has or struggle like others — notably LSU and Ben Simmons, who did not make the NCAA Tournament.
Michele Edds, 58, knows Kentucky’s situation is much different than that of Missouri’s, especially with the fact the Tigers have not made the tournament in four years, much less won a road game in three years.
Still, a Louisville native and lifelong Wildcats fan, Edds said one-and-dones can be “hard (to handle).”
Unlike Blanton, who said he feels like he knows Calipari’s teams better than Kentucky teams in years past due to the players’ success in the NBA, Edds wishes the players would stay longer for familiarity purposes.
She’s not alone.
Perched on a stone just outside of Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street, beneath a black top hat and a Kentucky sweater, 59-year-old Oscar Slavey thinks the one-and-done is unfair to the kids. He wishes they’d stay longer and get more of an education.
In a sense, Williams agrees.
“I think it’s better for the majority of the kids to go to college for a year. They’re more mature,” Williams said. “It’s better for the kids, but it’s also better for the NBA. They don’t screw it up as much. If it’s the second year, it would probably be the same thing, but still, some guys — I’ll just use LeBron (James) as an example. LeBron didn’t need it, and he did pretty doggone well the way it went with him.”
Regardless, Blanton, who said he always wants to see better basketball in the Southeastern Conference, added that he hopes it goes well for Missouri and he hopes fans “enjoy the ride.”
With a glimmer in his eye on the oh-so-vibrant street, Slavey had some advice, too.
“Whether you bleed blue or you bleed black and gold, you support your team,” Slavey said. “That’s all you can do. That’s all you should do.”