John Calipari must avoid losing more than just games while coaching Team USA

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — This is supposed to be the ultimate recruiting tool for the ultimate recruiter. As coach of the United States squad that will enter the FIBA U-19 World Cup in early July, John Calipari gets to deal directly with some of this nation’s most magnificent high school basketball players. He can speak directly to them, teach them, talk them up to the media.

John Calipari must avoid losing more than just games while coaching Team USA

John Calipari must avoid losing more than just games while coaching Team USA

He’s done all of that in just the two days USA Basketball has been holding trials for the 12-member team. And he’ll keep doing it, no doubt, until the U.S. either wins the tournament for the fourth time in its last five attempts or falls along the way.

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There are six prep players among the 27 on the trials roster, and Kentucky is recruiting five of them. Spending additional time around them would seem to be an overwhelming advantage for Kentucky — if they make the team — particularly since assistants Tad Boyle (Colorado) and Danny Manning (Wake Forest) won’t be a threat to land anyone in that group.

But this process is trickier than many believe.

It can cost a coach a recruit, also.

For instance, what if someone among those five doesn’t make the team? There are 13 players with college experience, including Oregon’s Payton Pritchard and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, who played deep into the NCAA Tournament as freshmen.

“We put a bunch of young guys on the team together to let them know it’s a little harder going against older guys,” Calipari said. “And they struggled a little bit.”

Of the 27 players, only three performed poorly enough in the first three practice sessions to be relatively painless cuts Tuesday afternoon. The other decisions are going to be tough, and the priority is not what suits the person coaching the team but rather what team is best constructed to win the gold medal.

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What people lose sight of in this process is that it’s not one person making the decision about the roster. Calipari, as the head coach, has considerable influence because the team must fit the way he wants to play. But his is one voice. A committee chaired by Purdue coach Matt Painter that includes Arizona’s Sean Miller and Providence’s Ed Cooley will help make the selections. When Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was involved with this process, he was comfortable making the tough decisions because he’d been around long enough that he wasn’t worried about a little heat.

Serving as youth national team coach twice cost Miller talented recruits, and he wound up playing against both of them in the Pac-12 Conference. In fact, he wound up losing games to both of them last season.

In 2014, Miller coached the U.S. U-18 squad in the FIBA Americas championship, the qualifying tournament for the U-19 Worlds. It probably didn’t hurt him in the pursuit of gifted shooting guard Allonzo Trier that Trier made the squad, but shooter Tyler Dorsey already had committed to the Wildcats at that point. Dorsey was squeezed out by an overwhelmingly talented group of perimeter players that included Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Luke Kennard, Jaylen Brown and Stanley Johnson. Dorsey performed well, just not as well.

When he didn’t make the squad, his commitment to Arizona soon was vacated, and Dorsey wound up signing with Oregon. The Ducks won the Pac-12 regular season title this past season and reached the Final Four. To make matters worse, Dorsey was able to play for the Greece youth national team the following summer in the U-19 Worlds — a team Miller also coached. And Dorsey scored 23 points in a close semifinal lost to the U.S.

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The decision was easier in 2015, when power forward T.J. Leaf arrived at the U-19 trials. Along with collegians such as Chinanu Onuaku of Louisville and Justin Bibbs of Virginia Tech, there were lots of players from Leaf’s high school class there: Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Terrance Ferguson. Leaf offered the weakest performance of any player in the gym. There was reason to doubt whether he was good enough to compete for championships in the Pac-12. The committee had no difficultly erasing his name from the roster, and he erased his Arizona commitment soon afterward.

Sometimes if you’re coaching the national team and a player you’re recruiting is kept on the team, the process still can hurt you. One coach attending the trials who coached a U-18 team years ago said a prospect he wanted made the squad but didn’t play as much as he wanted. That player didn't start a game and ranked seventh on the team in scoring. That player wound up choosing a different college.

“The committee will look at everything and cut this thing down,” Calipari said late Monday. “I’m once voice in the room.”

He needs you to know this. He really may need some of the young men trying out for the team to understand.

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