By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — When John Calipari had his postseason meeting with sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, the Kentucky coach said he “never even talked to him about coming back” to UK for another season.
Calipari had been in touch with 19 NBA general managers gathering information on the draft stock for his players after their NCAA title game loss to Connecticut and the consensus was that Cauley-Stein, despite the ankle injury he suffered in the NCAA tourney that ended his season, would be a mid-first round draft pick and likely lottery choice.
That’s why Calipari admitted Thursday he was a bit surprised when Cauley-Stein told him he would return to UK for his junior season.
Calipari said he reminded Cauley-Stein that when he came to see him in high school that one time he had a tennis racquet, another time he was playing wiffle ball and a third time he was playing kickball.
“I saw him play two football games with a 7-foot wide receiver and defensive back,” Calipari said.
Yet Cauley-Stein had reasons Calipari understood for wanting to return to UK.
“When he came back he said, ‘Coach, I am in no hurry to leave. I love going to school. I will be close to my degree (in another year). I still have to grow as a player and we left something (a national title) on the table.’ That is a good answer for me,” Calipari said. “There is a reason you do this and I want to make sure they are all thinking this through.”
Calipari’s press conference Thursday was to promote his new book, but it focused on what players might be back at Kentucky. Freshmen Julius Randle and James Young, the two players considered most likely to leave for the NBA, were not at the press conference and Calipari did not mention them or any player other than Cauley-Stein by name.
He said again he met with his players to ask them if they wanted him to explore their NBA options. He noted a “couple” said no but he received feedback on one from general managers that he might potentally be a first-round pick. That’s when Calipari told the player — presumed to be freshman center Dakari Johnson — that he needed to “get with his mother and needed to know what you are passing on if you come back” for another season.
“I have to live with myself. I think you need to come back, you I want you to know is out there,” Calipari said he told the player.
Calipari said he talked with NBA sources again Wednesday and his information he wants to go directly to parents.
“I don’t want any filter. This is it (accurate information),” the coach said. “I told all the kids when I met back on campus that whatever decision you make to leave or come back, this basketball program 50 years from now will be fine. Don’t make it for me, make it for you. Whatever is right for you.”
Calipari wants his players, and others, to understand it is not a sign of failure to come back for a second year — or a third year as Cauley-Stein has done. He noted how Patrick Patterson returned for his junior season in Calipari’s first year at UK and is now in line to sign a lucrative NBA contract because of his recent play.
“You have to convince each kid that everyone is different and we have your back. You have to trust the process. The bottom line is developing people and players. Some are mature physically. Some are mature emotionally,” Calipari said. “If you are emotionally ready (for the NBA) and not physically ready, you are out of your mind (to leave school). If you are both, you are the number one pick in the draft like we have had before (with John Wall and Anthony Davis).
“You have to look at each of these situations and I am even doing it in homes when I am recruiting. One thing I am saying is you are not a failure if you come back for two, three or four years. Do not plan on coming to Kentucky for year. But it can’t just be me doing it. It has to be everybody out there. Staying in school more than one year is not a failure.”
He says Cauley-Stein is not back because of any concerns about his ankle. He had surgery last week by “the best doctor in the world,” according to Calipari.
“Willie still has a couple of months to go (before he can be full speed), but he will be fine,” Calipari said.
With Cauley-Stein set to return and sophomore Alex Poythress also likely to return, that would give Calipari two veteran players with national championship game experience to build on next season. Freshmen Dominique Hawkins and Marcus Lee both played in the game and will be back as well. If Johnson and along with freshman guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison returned, it would give Calipari his most experienced — and deepest — team in six years at UK.
“Obviously it makes my job different (if those players return) than it has been the last four years,” Calipari said. “That means everyone of the kids needs me in a different way. It will be more of a challenge in having juniors, sophomores and freshmen that all need something different.
“Our young kids coming in want guys to come back. Some say someone should maybe leave because of who is coming in. You think it would be easier against NBA guys than high school guys. That’s nuts.
“What you have to do is accept their decisions. They have gotten the information. They know the downside because I have given it to them and when they make that decision you live with it.”