COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — John Calipari has not yet coached his first official game for USA Basketball’s under-19 World Cup team, but that won’t stop us from looking ahead a few years and wondering: Might this give him a shot at the big seat some day? Could the Kentucky coach eventually lead the men’s national team?
“If John does well over in Egypt, plus what he did with the Dominican team …” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said, letting that thought trail off. “I’ve been a believer — and I will continue to believe this — that a college coach is able to compartmentalize and have a little bit more time to deal with this. I don’t think the NBA coaches have that same amount of time.”
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski coached the U.S. men’s national team from 2005 through 2016 and won three consecutive Olympic gold medals before passing the torch to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a five-team NBA champion.
“He is as good as anybody has ever been, but I wonder about that, when he gets to 2020 (Olympics in Tokyo), where does he find the time to really devote to it?” DeCourcy said. “Mike Krzyzewski really could carve out some time in the calendar to do that. If Gregg Popovich has the Spurs going the way he wants, he starts on Sept. 1 and ends on June 20. So I hope that he does great, but I think a college coach is better suited to this.”
Of note: Popovich is already 68 years old, meaning he would be 75 by the 2024 Olympics. Calipari, who has led three different schools to a Final Four and won the 2012 national championship at Kentucky, is a decade younger and has several things working in his favor.
He coached the Dominican Republic men’s national team in 2011 and 2012, convincing NBA star Al Horford to participate and leading a country that had never qualified for the Olympics to within a single victory of doing just that.
“He got every last bit out of that group,” DeCourcy said. “And the other thing Cal does is he gets guys to play. He got Horford and Francisco Garcia; all the best Dominican guys were on the team. Recruiting is part of the deal.”
That just so happens to be a Calipari specialty, having landed the No. 1 or 2 recruiting class in college basketball every year since he came to Kentucky in 2009. Duke and Krzyzewski are his only rivals in that category, and one of Coach K’s big successes with Team USA was convincing LeBron James and other stars to spend their NBA offseason playing for their country.
More good news for Calipari if he hopes to coach the men’s national team: The number of NBA stars who played for him in college is growing. Before last season, Sports Illustrated had nine of his former Wildcats on its list of the top 100 NBA players, including four of the top 25.
Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall are perennial All-Stars, while Karl-Anthony Towns is on the cusp of becoming a top-10 player and Devin Booker is one of the game’s best young shooters. That list will only grow with 17 lottery picks and 24 first-rounders from Kentucky in the last eight years.
“By the time we get to the next Olympic cycle, if Pop doesn’t want to continue, those guys will all be top NBA players still,” DeCourcy said, “so maybe Cal’s relationship with them will make sense for USA Basketball.”
That could be a dream for UK fans who hope he stays in Lexington until he retires, because an opportunity like that might satisfy any lingering desire by Calipari to coach in the NBA — without actually having to do so. It seems to have scratched that itch for Krzyzewski, who had multiple overtures from NBA teams over the last decade but stayed put in Durham.
So, in short: Big Blue Nation should be rooting for Calipari to win big with the under-19 team at the FIBA World Cup in Egypt starting this weekend. A gold medal now might be the first step toward an even bigger gig with USA Basketball down the road.