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Nothing but blue skies for Calipari

Coach John Calipari (center) is surrounded by top-notch talent at Kentucky, and he doesn’t expect the “one-and-done’’ phenomenon to change that. Coach John Calipari (center) is surrounded by top-notch talent at Kentucky, and he doesn’t expect the “one-and-done’’ phenomenon to change that. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)
By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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NEWARK — It was a year ago, and John Calipari was at the Final Four in Indianapolis — as a spectator, not a participant — and he was talking with friends about the state of college basketball, in particular the “one and done’’ trend that seems to be growing.

More and more blue-chip athletes, limited by the NBA rule (adopted in 2006) that prohibits players from jumping to the league before their 19th birthday, spend just one year in prep school or college.

Although Kentucky had lost to West Virginia in the East Regional final, Calipari had Final Four-level talent on his roster. Five of his players, including four freshmen — one-and-doners — would soon be NBA first-round draft picks.

“What I am is an AAU coach,’’ said Calipari with a laugh, characterizing himself as simply a developer of talent with an always-changing inventory.

A year later, Calipari is back in the hunt. He again has a freshman-dominated lineup — two are NBA first-round quality — and the season continues tonight with an East Regional semifinal matchup with No. 1-seeded Ohio State.

Yesterday, Calipari again acknowledged the changing nature of the game and how he is dealing with it. He has already received commitments from four recruits who are regarded among the top 25 prospects in the country, including Michael Gilchrist, a 6-foot-7-inch forward from St. Patrick’s in Elizabeth, N.J., and Marquis Teague, a 6-2 point guard from Indianapolis. Both could easily fit the one-and-done model.

“I don’t like the rule,’’ he said. “I don’t like the one-and-done. I don’t think it’s good for college, I don’t think it’s good for the NBA.

“But it’s a rule that we have to live with. I recruit the best players I can recruit, and I don’t try to hold them back. If a freshman is better than an upperclassman, he’s playing.

“There’s nothing in any team I’ve ever coached that says, ‘It’s my turn.’ It’s no one’s turn. Who deserves to play? It’s about our team.

“I just told our basketball team that: Who is the best team in the field that’s playing together the best, that has the best players? That’s the team that’s going to win.’’

This is also a homecoming of sorts for Calipari. New Jersey (specifically, East Rutherford) is where he brought the University of Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996 and where he coached the New Jersey Nets from 1996-99.

“A lot of good memories,’’ said Calipari. “Some not so good, as well.’’

But there is little question that after more than 20 years of climbing the ladder in the coaching profession, Calipari is where he wants to be.

Asked how the constant rotation of blue-chip freshmen affects his recruiting, he said, “If I can get five players a year that are NBA first-round picks, I won’t have to recruit that hard — they will come to me.’’

And he is finishing the second year of an eight-year, $31.7 million contract.

He is doing just fine.

As for the critics — who are still out there and as vocal as ever — he shrugs them off as part of being in the spotlight. He has heard the chatter about being the only coach with two programs (UMass and Memphis) that were forced to vacate their Final Four berths because of NCAA sanctions. But the NCAA, which is not shy about putting the blame on coaches, did not directly implicate Calipari in either case.

But now he is at a higher level than he has ever reached.

“It’s different than any other program,’’ he said. “I know there are programs that are connected to their state, but none like this. They breathe with every shot. Inhale, exhale.

“That’s just how they are, and they are everywhere. Everywhere we go, they figure out how to get tickets. I don’t know how they do it.

“A lot of them are taking every penny they have to go on a vacation or whatever else to just go to the SEC Tournament or follow the team in the NCAA Tournament because they can’t get tickets in Rupp.

“We play whoever, it doesn’t matter. There are 25,000 people in that building. It is just a unique thing. There is such a connection to the people of the state and the program.

“And there’s high expectations. It doesn’t matter whether we lose this guy or this guy, you win. If you don’t win by 25, why aren’t you winning by 25? So it is a unique place and I am humbled to be able to coach there and have this opportunity to be a part of it.’’

Calipari won’t back off. When he was at Memphis, he flirted with North Carolina State — a job that is again open — because it offered the highest level of competition.

“I just wanted to be on the same level with the Dukes and the North Carolinas,’’ he said. “That’s what interested me.’’

He is at that level at Kentucky, and tonight will take on No. 1 Ohio State with a team of freshmen and sophomores who have talent but not much experience. The Buckeyes have both.

“I’m at a job that I worked my entire career to get to,’’ said Calipari with a smile and a shake of his head.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.