Analysis: Kentucky basketball is in a league of its own when it comes to roster turnover
LEXINGTON – Welcome to your new reality, Keion Brooks.
In a Kentucky basketball program where the definition of a veteran has had to be graded on a curve for most of the last decade, Brooks is stretching the meaning of the word to a new level.
The Wildcat forward averaged just 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game as a freshman but is the only rotation player set to return next season. No other player on the 2020-21 Kentucky roster will have scored a point or grabbed a rebound while wearing a UK jersey.
Massive roster turnover is nothing new for John Calipari in his 11 years at Kentucky, but with players not even assured of being drafted now regularly leaving Lexington after just two years, it is becoming even more difficult to find the type of continuity needed to keep Kentucky as the "gold standard" of college basketball, as Calipari likes to say.
The eight departures from the coronavirus-shortened season tie a record set previously by the 2011-12 and 2016-17 UK teams. But each of those squads returned four scholarship players the next year.
What is unprecedented about the current roster churn is the level of NBA draft prospect leaving the program.
Among the Wildcats’ six early entrants into the draft — including freshman Kahlil Whitney, who left the team in January — only Tyrese Maxey is considered a lock to be selected in the first round. Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans or Nick Richards could work their way into the back of the first round, but all three face major questions that could see them slide out of the two-round draft all together. EJ Montgmery and Whitney are not currently projected as draft picks.
For the first time in Calipari’s tenure, a UK player was not selected in the first 10 picks of the NBA draft last year. ESPN projects that trend to continue in 2020, with Maxey the first Wildcat selected at No. 12, according to its most recent mock draft.
But as the average draft selection of UK’s underclassmen has dropped — 19.5 from 2010 to 2015 to 27.6 in the last four drafts — the number of departures has actually increased, with at least six players leaving each of Kentucky’s last five teams via the draft or transfer.
Many would argue Kentucky’s success with Calipari as coach more than justifies the challenges presented by the annual exodus. After all, the Hall of Fame coach won a national championship, reached four Final Fours and made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in eight of his first 10 years in Lexington.
But is that success enough to justify Kentucky being placed in a league of its own when it comes to roster turnover?
To gain a better understanding of how Calipari’s system compares to the Wildcats’ top competitors, The Courier Journal analyzed each signing class from 2009 to 2018 from each of the other 12 programs to either reach multiple Final Fours or win a national championship during Calipari’s tenure in Lexington: Butler, Connecticut, Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse, Villanova, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Success has varied within that group. For instance, Connecticut won two national titles in that span and beat Kentucky in the Final Four in both its title years, but made the NCAA Tournament just two other times. However, five of those programs (Duke, Villanova, North Carolina, Louisville and Connecticut) boast multiple Final Fours and a national championship during that time frame like Kentucky.
The breakdown reveals a stark contrast between Kentucky and every other program on the list.
A league of its own
Of the 55 high school or junior college recruits signed by Calipari at UK between 2009 and 2018, only five (9.1%) completed their eligibility in Lexington. Two of the five Wildcats who did were junior college transfers with only two years of eligibility remaining when they signed with Kentucky.
At least 36% of the signees at the other 12 programs exhausted their eligibility for that school or remain on the team’s 2020-21 roster.
Kentucky is the only team in that group without a single player from its 2017 or 2018 signing class set to return to school next season, including Louisville, which did not even sign a high school or junior college player in the 2018 class.
The Wildcats’ annual roster churn means Calipari has signed 11 more recruits than any other program on the list. Of Calipari’s first 55 signees at Kentucky, 41 have entered the NBA draft as underclassmen, more than twice as many as the program with the second most early entrants on the list (Duke, at 20).
Of the Blue Devils 20 underclassmen to declare for the NBA draft in the 2009 to 2018 signing classes, 17 signed with the program in the second half of that 10-year period. While Mike Krzyzewski's roster turnover has begun to resemble Kentucky's, Duke still has two signees from the 2017 and 2018 classes projected to return next season though.
Searching for experience
To be clear, Calipari’s program still finds itself in an enviable position compared to the vast majority of college basketball thanks to a No. 1-ranked 2020 signing class.
Once a vocal critic of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, Calipari has overcome his reservations to join most other coaches in taking advantage of the ability for graduates to transfer and play right away. The NCAA is expected to allow all players to transfer once without sitting out later this summer, adding another avenue for adding experience.
Calipari has already signed Creighton graduate transfer Davion Mintz for next season. Rhode Island freshman Jacob Toppin announced he would transfer to Kentucky on Thursday.
But the track record of graduate transfers at Kentucky is mixed.
None of Calipari's three UK teams with a graduate transfer reached a Final Four, and one went to the NIT. We'll never know how the 2020 team might have fared if the NCAA Tournament were played, but it is unlikely role player graduate transfer Nate Sestina would have been the difference in an extended run.
Best known for coaching one-and-done players, Calipari's biggest problem is less about the instant stars than the players who stick around for two years then leave regardless of their draft stock.
His best hope for slowing the annual roster turnover would be to convince borderline draft prospects like Montgomery and Whitney to return to school.
The trend of underclassmen leaving despite not being projected as draft picks is not limited to Kentucky.
Between 2010 and 2015, between 42 and 50 college underclassmen kept their names in the NBA draft. That number has increased in each of the next four years, all the way to 84 in 2019. With only 60 selections in the two-round draft each year, a growing number of college underclassmen are guaranteed to go undrafted.
UK ranks third in the Calipari era in undrafted underclassmen with four , behind Louisville and Kansas with six each. Both Louisville and Kansas had at least one undrafted underclassmen on the list who had been dismissed from the team or was ineligible to return due to NCAA investigations, and Kentucky had two other sophomores initially transfer before starting a professional career overseas without ever playing again in college.
The vast majority of the other school's undrafted early entrants came after three years on campus. All of Kentucky's were sophomores.
The four teams with the fewest underclassmen to declare for the NBA draft in that group (Butler, Wisconsin, Virginia and Connecticut) actually rank in the top five of most transfers, showing roster turnover is not only reserved to NBA factories like Kentucky and Duke.
But while those programs generally have enough returning experience to weather a transfer or two each year, Kentucky can ill afford to lose more contributors given how many players leave for the draft each year.
New challenges ahead
If the draft and transfers were not enough concern for Calipari, he was handed a new consideration this week with the news that the NBA’s G League is set to offer elite high school prospects $500,000 or more to skip college all together.
Five-star 2020 recruits Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd, both one-time UK targets, became the first players to reportedly accept those deals this week. UK signee Terrence Clarke was among the other 2020 recruits rumored to be considering the G League’s pitch, but he tweeted on Wednesday he would attend college as planned.
Even with Clarke turning down the G League, if Green and Todd thrive in the developmental program before becoming eligible for the draft next season, more of Calipari’s top-end recruiting targets are likely to consider that option in the future.
And without top-10 recruits like Clarke or 2020 signee B.J. Boston arriving, replacing six-plus players per year would become all the more difficult.
Calipari has proven again and again that assembling the most talent possible — even young talent — tends to keep his teams in the hunt for a national title each year, but even he acknowledges the importance of experience.
“The anxiety a freshman has … that a sophomore does not have in this program is incredible,” Calipari said before the latest round of departures. “Knowing that each game is the other team’s Super Bowl, that every practice matters, you’re not going through the motions. You don’t take a day off.”
Success at Kentucky has never been judged by reaching Sweet 16s and Elite Eights. It comes with Final Fours and national championships.
Calipari reached those goals better than any coach for his first six years in Lexington.
Now, there is reason to wonder if his system has become too unstable to keep Kentucky in a tier alone among college basketball’s elite.
A Final Four run next season would allow Calipari to silence many of his doubters, but another earlier-than-expected exit might be the final proof needed to show the roster turnover is unsustainable.
Even with multiple transfers, the 2020-21 Wildcats will have less experience than any of Calipari’s previous teams. For Kentucky to remain the “gold standard” of college basketball, the Hall of Fame coach needs to hurdle his biggest challenge yet.