Editor's note: Today, Yahoo! Sports continues a three-day series of stories looking at the players, coaches and teams to watch in the NCAA tournament. Tuesday's entry: Coach to Watch John Calipari.
Part I: Player to Watch Jerel McNeal
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The projections – some of them, at least – say he'll be a lottery pick if he leaves school early, a 19-year-old millionaire the moment commissioner David Stern summons him to the stage during this summer's NBA draft.
For Memphis freshman Tyreke Evans, the decision whether to remain in college or turn pro seems automatic – especially considering he'll get no resistance from his head coach.
"Without question," Memphis' John Calipari says, "if Tyreke has the opportunity to leave, I'll tell him, 'You've got to go.' "
Calipari has done it before with freshmen such as Derrick Rose and DaJuan Wagner – and he'll likely do it again next season with the one-and-done prospects from a 2009 recruiting class that some analysts are already hailing as the best in college basketball history.
More and more these days, Memphis is becoming the country's most popular pit-stop to the NBA.
"There's a proven track record here," Calipari says. "When you're ready to take that next step, we won't hold you back."
The Badgers have baffled many an opponent with Ryan's swing offense, prefaced on getting the ball down low for a high-percentage shot or drawing a foul. Patient, deliberate, boring. Effective.
Howland has rebuilt the Bruins to a level not seen since John Wooden walked away from Pauley Pavilion. Another top recruiting class this season has a lot to prove in the tournament.
Best at working refs
Pitino is a commanding presence on the sideline and has the gift of gab when it comes to influencing the zebras. He is constantly in their ear with that New York tawk.
It's all about range, and Coach K can wax with nostalgia about history, his love for the Blue Devils, business ethics and then drop a cuss word that would make Christian Bale blush.
Whether it's putting his team through its now famous "War" drill or by getting up into your grill, Izzo will get your attention. With four Final Fours and a national championship, he gets results.
Giorgio Armani wears Jay Wright suits, or so the joke goes. This guy sets the standard for sideline haberdashery. Sorry Pitino, that white Saturday Night Fever suit's gotta go.
– Gerry Ahern
Who do you think are the top coaches in each of the above categories? Send your comments to Gerry Ahern
The situation might aggravate old-school purists, but it's perfectly fine with Calipari, who, more than any other coach, has benefitted from the NBA's decision in 2005 that prohibits prospects from entering the draft until they're at least one year removed from high school.
Before the rule was established, Calipari watched as some of his most high-profile signees – Amare Stoudemire, among them – headed straight to the NBA without ever spending a day in college.
But these days, thanks in part to the new guideline, Memphis has blossomed into one of the most successful programs in America with a 132-11 record over the past four years.
Fueled by Evans' 16.6 points per game, the Tigers will take a No. 2 seed into Thursday's NCAA tournament opener against Cal State Northridge in Kansas City.
That's one spot lower than Memphis was seeded last season, when it went 38-2 and lost in overtime to Kansas in the national title game. Three months later Rose was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft after spending just one season in college.
"Some people say (taking one and two-year players) is killing our program," Calipari says. "I don't think it's hurt us at all. It's only making us better."
The point is difficult to debate.
Memphis lost its three most important pieces off last year's squad in Rose, All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts and forward Joey Dorsey. All three players are now in the NBA. Still, with Evans leading the way this season, the Tigers have hardly missed a beat.
"No one around here even talks about last year's team anymore," Calipari says. "The expectation level around here is so high that it's almost dangerous. It's a good problem to have."
In other words, get used to Memphis' good seeds and deep NCAA tournament runs, because as long as Calipari is the head coach, the trend of recruiting short-timers is only going to continue.
Two of the top three high school seniors on Rivals.com's Top 150 list (Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins) have announced their intentions to play for Memphis next season. And just last week, point guard John Wall – the top-ranked high school senior in America – listed Memphis as his leader over Kansas and Baylor.
So what if he only ends up staying one year?
"Half of the junior class is listing us as a favorite, too," Calipari says. "The ball is definitely rolling our way."
The winning has been great – and he loves the city and the fans. Still, for Tyreke Evans, one of the best parts about playing for Memphis is the Tigers' dribble-drive, motion offense.
"You can go out there and freelance a little bit," Evans said. "If you're a ballplayer, you can go out and make a play.
"There are no set plays, where you have to be in this spot or that one. It's about spacing and spreading the floor so you can get an opportunity to do what you want to do with the ball."
In other words, it's the perfect system for an NBA prospect to showcase his talent.
Style of play isn't the only reason short-timers are flocking to Memphis.
Spending a year in a major metropolitan city beats moving to Waco, Texas, or to a cornfield in Manhattan, Kan., for 12 months. And the FedEx Forum is almost always filled to capacity to watch a team that's done no worse than the Elite Eight for three straight years.
Calipari almost always books one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country and, because they compete in Conference USA instead of one of the Big Six leagues, the Tigers are able to stockpile plenty of wins.
Detractors say the situation (Memphis always receiving a good NCAA tournament seed) is unfair to teams that compete in better conferences, but Calipari has an easy defense. To get to last season's NCAA title game, No. 1 seed Memphis had to defeat Michigan State, Texas and UCLA.
"Ask Michigan State if our league mattered when they were down 50-20 at halftime," Calipari says. "Ask Texas if playing in (Conference USA) was affecting us when we were beating them by 20 in front of 34,000 Longhorns fans in Houston.
"We've proven more than once now that we've been seeded in the right place."
That's Calipari – bold, outspoken and fiercely loyal to his players, who say they can't imagine anyone who would do a better job of preparing someone for the next level.
After leading Massachusetts to its first-ever Final Four, Calipari spent two-plus seasons as head coach of the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
Even though he was fired early in his third season, the fact that he has experience in the pro game – one of Calipari's mentors is Larry Brown – is just another reason so many of the nation's top high school players now consider Memphis when selecting a school.
"He never talks to us about the NBA – at least not during the season," guard Antonio Anderson says. "But we all realize he knows what he's doing. Years from now, we'll probably see how much he prepared us for that next level."
– John Calipari
Calipari isn't the only coach who makes a good mentor for NBA prospects. What separates him, though, is that he's got a reputation for bringing players along and developing them more quickly than most of his colleagues.
Often, when top-flight players show up on campus, their coach will limit their touches – and, thus, their offensive stats. Other times they'll keep a player out of the starting lineup or play him out of position.
"They'll do just enough to keep the kid there another year," Calipari says. "But for me, to get the kids to play as hard as I'm trying to get them to play on every possession, they've got to feel that I've got their best interest at heart.
"If the trust a player has in a coach is ever broken – and they know you're not about them, but about yourself – you're done. That's why you see teams this time of year start losing and start folding."
That's hardly been the case with Evans.
At the beginning of the season, Calipari said he made a mistake by playing Evans on the wing when his more natural position was point guard. Calipari realized his error after a Dec. 20 loss to Syracuse and gave Evans control of the offense. Memphis hasn't lost since.
"I asked Tyreke why he didn't say anything," Calipari says, "and he told me, 'I was just doing what you wanted me to do.'
"That's the kind of players we have here. We had guys ranked in the top 10 last year express interest in playing for Memphis, but we told them we weren't interested because we didn't know if they'd be a good fit. We're looking for givers – not takers.
"We want guys who want to be coached."
In the spring of 2002, shortly after his freshman season at Memphis, DaJuan Wagner walked into John Calipari's office and watched his coach rip up his scholarship papers. Wagner had been projected as the sixth overall pick in the NBA draft.
Even if Wagner wanted to return for his sophomore season, Calipari wouldn't let him pass up the riches that awaited him at the professional level.
Calipari delivered a similar message last year to Derrick Rose.
"'Derrick,'" Calipari says he told Rose, "'if you want to do what's right for you and your family, you should go (to the NBA). If you want to do what's right for me and my family, you should stay another couple of years.'"
"The thing I wanted him to know," he says, "is that, even without him, we were going to be fine."
And not just because Memphis was getting Evans.
For every player who leaves Memphis after a year or two, there are handfuls of upperclassmen who play just as vital of a role in the Tigers' program.
Rodney Carney helped the Tigers to the Elite Eight as a senior in 2006 and is now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Chris Douglas-Roberts left after his junior season, but not before earning first-team All-American honors for the 2007-08 squad that reached the national title game.
Paramount to the current team's success are seniors Anderson, Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart. All of them average more than 10 points per game. The threesome – along with classmate Chance McGrady – has won 92.4 percent of its games (135 out of 146) since arriving at Memphis.
"You couldn't do that on a video game," Calipari says.
Dozier said it's a mistake to say that competing against weaker competition in Conference USA makes for an easy trek to success.
"Playing here is tough," Dozier says. "(Calipari) is very demanding. He holds you accountable for everything you do. He's either going to be yelling at you, calling you or texting you – and he's got five other coaches doing the same thing.
"He knows what's best for us."
Calipari said that 19 of the 22 seniors he's had during his nine seasons at Memphis have earned their degrees.
"This is not a basketball factory," Calipari says.
Whatever the label, more and more prospects are lining up to join Memphis' program. Each time a new prospect commits, Calipari inches closer to the one thing that's eluded him during his banner career: a national title.
The Tigers thought they had the championship wrapped up last season when they led Kansas by nine points with 2 minutes and 12 seconds remaining. But Jayhawks guard Mario Chalmers capped a miraculous comeback with a 3-pointer that forced overtime, where Memphis fell 75-68.
Instead of letting the loss get the best of him, Calipari spun it into a positive. He now spends much of his free time giving motivational speeches to business groups about dealing with adversity. He also wrote a book about his experiences with basketball heartache.
"The book is about what I did and what other people have done when they're on their back," Calipari says. "It's about how to respond when everything goes south."
Scheduled to be released in August, the book is titled, "Bouncing Back."
Too bad Calipari didn't wait a bit longer to complete the project. Considering the direction of Memphis' program, it only seems like a matter of time before he'd be able to pen the ultimate ending.
- John Calipari
- Tyreke Evans