SEC coaches praise Calipari's ability to coach younger players, saying 'no one better'

October 20, 2023
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes Tennessee coach Rick Barnes

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky has one of the youngest rosters in the Southeastern Conference and John Calipari has a history of successfully navigating through a season with inexperienced freshmen.

Unlike the past few seasons when Calipari has relied more on veterans — via the transfer portal — than newcomers, the Kentucky coach has a roster featuring eight freshmen on this year's squad. Coaches in the league are aware of Calipari’s success with younger players and insist the Wildcats will be in the hunt for a league title despite being picked to finish fourth in a preseason poll released by the league office earlier this week.

“There's no one better at coaching younger players,” Arkansas coach Eric Mussellman said. “There's no one better in the country, probably no one better in the history of college basketball, coaching young guys. I don't think there's even a close second. I do think they can have great success even though they are young because he's got lottery picks. When you have lottery picks, first-round picks, you're going to win games.”

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl agreed and added, “Nobody is feeling sad for John.”

“They're all five stars, McDonald's All-Americans, they're all in the top 20 on the NBA Draft board,” he said. “He's got some tremendous players, tremendous kids, guys that are going to be lottery. He's going to coach 'em up.”

Pearl, now in his 10th season at Auburn, said Calipari will get the most out of his freshmen talent, a list consisting of Rob Dillingham, Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, Reed Sheppard, D.J. Wagner, Jordan Burks, Zvonimir Ivisic and Joey Hart.

“They're going to guard — they're going to play for each other,” Pearl said. “Typically those teams get better throughout the season because they are so young. The challenge is they always play a tough skill early in the year, so you can't really know what they're going to be like come March. I think if I had the ability to recruit five stars at every position, I wouldn't be turning them down just to do something different. John's going to do it his way.”

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose Volunteers were the preseason favorite to win the regular-season title, added patience will be required, especially during the non-conference games.

“You have to be really patient when you have that many young guys because you want to see 'em get better every day,” Barnes said. “Most young guys will have a good day, maybe next day not so much. If you tell them they've had a good day, you can almost bet it's not going to be as good the next day.

“He has to balance a lot of different things, anytime you're coaching young guys, but knowing you have to get them to do a couple things well early, whereas with an older group, you can get a lot more done early in the year compared to the younger guys. We would all tell you talent is a good thing to have. He certainly has that. But he's a terrific coach.”

Even though his squad is a favorite to win the league, Barnes knows that won’t be an easy task.

“In this league, every team where we start, where they start, will be better at the end of the year because of the level of coaching in this league,” he said.

phil malicote