John Calipari's recruiting style and the value of experience in the NCAA Tournament

Preview of my Kentucky story for Blue Ribbon Report

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m doing some work for the new Blue Ribbon Report.

Here’s a free preview of my first story, which is available for Blue Ribbon Report subscribers. You can click the button below the preview for subscription options.

Thanks for reading!

Reid Travis, Nate Sestina, and the value of grad transfers

  • John Calipari (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

The goal of every team in college basketball each season is to win the national championship. It's a realistic goal for some, not so much for most. 

Kentucky falls into neither of those groups.

For the Wildcats, winning the national title isn’t just a goal, it’s an expectation. That has seemingly always been the case in Lexington, but things were taken up a notch when John Calipari became head coach in 2009. Since then, Kentucky has made the Final Four three times, captured one national championship, and won 81.1 percent of its games.

The Wildcats’ accomplishments each season have been mostly fueled by the nation’s most talented recruits. 

The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to Calipari’s success on the recruiting trail in his first 11 seasons:

Just like winning a national title, having a top recruiting is no longer a goal, but an expectation. The data suggests that trend won't change as long as Calipari is in charge. 

One trend that has changed is Kentucky’s receptiveness to graduate transfers. For three straight seasons, Calipari and his staff have recruited a grad transfer to Lexington. 

Reid Travis—a former first-team All-Pac-12 selection—transferred from Stanford to Kentucky for the 2018-19 season. The 6-8 forward averaged 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in his only season, playing a pivotal role in helping lead the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. 

Nate Sestina earned second-team All-Patriot League honors at Bucknell before heading to Lexington for the 2019-20 campaign. He added size and perimeter shooting to a team that was capable of making a Final Four run before the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled.

The Wildcats’ most recent grad transfer is former Creighton guard Davion Mintz—a 6-3 point guard who started 79 games in three seasons with the Bluejays. He figures to be an important piece in 2020-21.

All three players are different. They have different backgrounds, personalities, and skillsets. But the common theme that ties them together is they’ve all become the cornerstone of experience for a program that perennially lacks it.

Something else that connects them is that they’re not joining just any program. They’re joining Kentucky.

“What you immediately gain when you bring in older guys is someone that knows the landscape of college basketball,” Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus says. “We’ve had three guys that have been a part of different backgrounds in their college experience. But none of them have been somewhere where the expectation is to win every single game and compete for a national championship. 

“While they bring tremendous leadership, maturity, the understanding of what it’s like to work every single day, to practice hard and be in a competitive setting, they still have to understand doing it at a higher level.”

Stepping into the pressure that comes along with playing for the winningest program in college basketball can be a challenge. It’s not for everyone, no matter how talented or experienced.

As Justus notes, what matters most is whether it’s the right move for all parties.

“Anytime you’re recruiting at Kentucky, it’s gotta be the right fit,” Justus says. “It’s the same thing for a high school senior. It becomes a little bit of a quicker process if you’re older just because you have more of an established body of work.” 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the staff is still working on figuring out Mintz’s role. But Travis and Sestina each brought an element of experience that proved to be invaluable for the Wildcats.

Most importantly, they were the right player at the right time for the way the roster was already constructed.

“Nate and Reid were two very different personalities,” Justus says. “But they probably fit in better with their individual teams. If you flipped the two, I’m not sure it would have worked as well.”

In Travis’ case, he joined a young group that was more free-flowing and outgoing in its approach. Travis and then-sophomore P.J. Washington became the model of seriousness as two older, mature players who were driven and focused.

When it was time for the younger players to buckle down and get to work, Travis and Washington made it known.

“Reid brought a very serious level of work to a team that needed maturity,” Justus says. “He was so quiet and business-like, whereas Keldon [Johnson] and Tyler [Herro] and Ashton [Hagans] were kind of Chatty Cathy, but they had great energy and were so fun and competitive.”


Read the full story at Blue Ribbon Report

We also have insight from Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis, Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes, UAB coach Andy Kennedy, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, and former Gonzaga star Dan Dickau on the impact of transfers in college basketball.

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Introducing the Blue Ribbon Report

I'm expanding my college basketball coverage

Hey, friends. Hope you’re all doing well during this crazy era.

I’m adding a new role to my college basketball workload: I’m now an assistant editor for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, which is set to release its 40th anniversary edition this season.

It’s an exciting opportunity to be even more involved with the best college basketball resource available each season. I’ll still be writing team and conference previews in addition to the editing work.

However, Blue Ribbon has also decided to launch year-round online coverage with the Blue Ribbon Report. Even better, it’s available right here on Substack, meaning you can get it directly in your inbox each week. It’ll include long-form features, podcasts, resources for coaches, advanced stats, and a whole lot more.

Our first mini-edition of the Blue Ribbon Report is available for absolutely free to give you an idea of what you can expect from our staff. It includes my feature story on former Florida assistant and current Florida Atlantic head coach Dusty May.

You can read it by clicking on the link below.

Read the Blue Ribbon Report

For full access to all of our future written content and podcasts, a subscription starts at only $7.99 per month, or you can save $24 per year (which equals 3 months free) by choosing the annual plan. If you’re not yet ready to commit to a paid subscription, you can sign up for free and jump into a paid plan any time you’d like.

In our next edition, we’ll have insight from Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis, Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes, UAB head coach Andy Kennedy, San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher, and others on the transfer situation in college basketball. It should provide a fascinating glimpse into why coaches are pursuing more and more transfers, and how it’s becoming a necessary element to be successful.

We’ve already gotten a lot of great feedback on our preview edition, and the support of our readers means the world to us.

Of course, I think the same of your support of my work. You guys subscribed to my Substack because you enjoy my college basketball coverage, and I’m thrilled to add more of that via Blue Ribbon and Heat Check CBB (this is where you’ll find my non-Blue Ribbon work on SEC and college basketball).

So, be sure to give the Blue Ribbon Report a read.

And while you’re at, pre-order the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook for the 2020-21 season.

Blue Ribbon Report on Substack

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Week in Review: Cuonzo Martin interview, Twitch stream, and more

Catch up on stories and podcasts from the week

Here’s what I’ve been up to this week, along with other things worth reading and listening to around college basketball.


We have officially started season one of the College Hoops 2K8 stream on Twitch, and it’s a good example of how much people are craving live sports.

The number of people invested in me live streaming a college basketball video game is incredible, and I absolutely love it. We’ve had hundreds of folks watch the first two games, which is pretty awesome.

And if you want to know how invested Alabama fans are in, look no further than these graphics from our friends at Crimson Crossover:

If you haven’t kept up with the first season, Alabama is off to a 2-0 start with wins over No. 21 Creighton and Samford.

Next up? The Maui Invitational. First up is a matchup against Oklahoma State on Sunday night.

Follow the Twitch channel to get notifications when the games tip off.

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Marching to Madness

For the SEC fans: We talked with Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin this week on the Marching to Madness podcast and discussed a variety of topics, including how he’s approaching the offseason, fighting racial injustice, expectations for next season, and much more.

Cuonzo is one of the most genuine people you’ll meet, and his passion not only for coaching but for making young men better human beings is why he’s so well-respected.

You can listen to that episode below, along with other episodes from the week:

The Jboy Show

I joined Jake Crain on the Jboy Show to discuss lots of SEC and college basketball topics, including Jonathan Kuminga, the NBA’s G League program, expectations for the SEC next season, and much more.

Jake does a great job with his podcast, and this was a fun conversation.

Locked on Big Ten

If you want some non-college basketball talk, I had a great discussion with Locked on Big Ten host Ben Stevens about the expectations for the 2020 college football season.

We discussed our predictions on whether there will actually be a season, why there could be numerous schedule changes, and much more.


Bruce Pearl interview on the Jboy Show: Jake Crain interviewed the Auburn head coach, and they discussed a variety of topics relating to his decision to coach the Tigers, next season’s roster, and more.

Cade Cunningham’s decision to stay at Oklahoma State: Brian Rauf wrote a great piece on the nation’s top freshman and what it means about Mike Boynton’s leadership.

ESPN’s newest bracketology: Joe Lunardi has six teams included in his updated bracket, with Tennessee and Kentucky leading the charge.

Reflecting on Florida’s back-to-back national titles: The program is doing a tremendous six-part series that looks back at the legendary group that made up the Gators’ title teams. It’s worth the read and listen.

Yves Pons is good at basketball: Jon Chepkevich of Pro Basketball Combine had a fun interview with the Tennessee star on how he plays the game, what he wants to improve, and more.

CBS Sports 2020 NBA Mock Draft with a twist: Matt Norlander put together a first-round mock based on which players could have the most long-term success. Six SEC players are included, with three in the top 10.

Hoopin With Hoops podcast: My friend Greg Peterson is a machine when it comes to doing college basketball podcasts, so much so that he does one literally every single day. Be sure to support his show for great betting analysis and interviews.

Vince Carter was ridiculous at North Carolina: In honor of Carter retiring from basketball, here’s a reminder of why he’s one of the most exciting players in college basketball history.

Heat Check CBB newsletter: If you want to keep up with all our work at Heat Check CBB, subscribe to the free newsletter. We also have a premium subscription tier for those who want even more college basketball coverage.

Subscribe to Heat Check CBB

Other Stuff

For everything else, subscribe to the newsletter and follow me on Twitter.

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Week In Review: Video games, Marching to Madness expansion, and more

Catch up on stories and podcasts from the week

It seems that you guys enjoyed the first Week in Review newsletter, so let’s keep it going.

Here’s what I’ve been up to this week, along with other things worth reading and listening to around college basketball.


There aren’t any new articles from me this week, but before you call me a slacker, here are a few things I’ve been working on.

College Hoops 2K8 on Twitch

People want sports. They want it so much that 100,000+ people are consistently watching Coach Duggs do his thing on the NCAA Football 14 video game on Twitch.

So, that led me to spend way too much money on eBay to buy what is arguably the greatest college basketball video game ever made: College Hoops 2K8.

I’m going to start my own dynasty and stream it on Twitch. You guys get to decide via a Twitter poll which SEC basketball team I start with. With already 1,200 votes, Alabama has a double-digit lead on Arkansas, while Auburn and Vanderbilt have a lot of work to do.

The winner is announced on Sunday, so click on the link below to go to Twitter and vote.

SEC basketball breakout players

I asked for your picks for breakout players in SEC basketball next season. There were a lot of good choices, and some of them were already on my list.

Of course, everyone has different opinions as to their criteria of a breakout player. For me, it’s a player that is either in a new situation or has the potential to develop into an impact performer for his team.

Th SEC breakout players article posts next week on Heat Check CBB.

Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook

It’s been an unusual offseason in college basketball, and that has obviously led to plenty of questions about what next season will look like.

However, despite the uncertainty, we’re going to push through with the newest edition of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. If you’ve read it before, you know the value you’re getting. If you haven’t read it before, it’s the most extensive resource you’ll find in college basketball. Coaches use it, the media uses it, everyone uses it.

Here are the team/conference previews I’ll be doing for Blue Ribbon this season:

  • Big West (all teams)

  • Horizon League (all but Northern Kentucky and Robert Morris)

  • Mountain West (all but San Diego State)

  • Missouri

  • Texas A&M

Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview Magazine

Also excited to contribute to Athlon Sports for another season. I did the Auburn preview for a few seasons before switching to the Tennessee preview.

This season, I’ll once again be writing about the Vols.

Considering that Rick Barnes could have a potential Final Four contender in Knoxville, there should be plenty of optimism about Tennessee’s potential.


Marching to Madness

I announced on Twitter that we are expanding our Marching to Madness podcast. We’re adding new weekly shows and more unique coverage for college basketball fans.

We’ll still have the usual interviews with coaches around the country, but some of the new shows on the network will offer fans a bit more variety and lots of different angles within college hoops.

Speaking of the coach interviews, here are some of our most recent ones:

Subscribe to Marching to Madness

Locked on Vols

I joined Josh Ward on Locked on Vols to discuss Tennessee basketball, including the Vols’ chances to win an SEC title, what other teams stand out in the conference, and much more.


Here’s a variety of stuff worth reading and listening to.

ESPN’s way-too-early top 25: Jeff Borzello put together his early top 25, with four SEC teams included.

Early Big 12 power rankings: Brian Rauf shared his Big 12 power rankings, with two familiar favorites leading the way.

Early Mountain West power rankings: Eli Boettger and the Mountain West go together like peanut butter and jelly. He did an excellent job of looking at where things stand in the conference heading into next season.

How college basketball can help HBCUs: Kevin Sweeney wrote an excellent article on what the NCAA can do to improve the playing field for HBCUs.

The rise of Tyrese Haliburton: Blue Ribbon publisher Chris Dortch did an awesome piece on the former Iowa State guard and the development of point guards in general.

The SWAC joins SEC basketball officiating: The league announced that the SWAC would join the officiating consortium, with Reggie Cofer being named the new Assistant Coordinator of Men’s Basketball Officials for the SEC.

Heat Check CBB newsletter: If you want to keep up with all our work at Heat Check CBB, subscribe to the free newsletter. We also have a premium subscription tier for those who want even more college basketball coverage.

Subscribe to Heat Check CBB

Other Stuff

For everything else, subscribe to the newsletter and follow me on Twitter.

Follow Blake on Twitter

Blake's Week In Review: SEC basketball power rankings, podcasts, and more

Catch up on stories and podcasts from the week

For those that follow me on Twitter, you know I’m doing a lot of writing and a lot of podcasts.

So, moving forward, I’m going to do a Friday newsletter with links to everything I’ve been up to. I’ll also include links to other related stories or podcasts I’ve found interesting throughout the week.

Also as a teaser: I’ve got a fun and entertaining series in the works that I think a lot of you will enjoy. Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter for absolutely free to keep up with the details on it once it gets started.

Let’s get to the week in review.


Early SEC basketball power ranking tiers for the 2020-21 Season

READ: Heat Check CBB

SEC basketball season is still a while away, but everyone wants to know what the expectations could be for their team. I separated teams into six tiers to try to get you a better idea of how things could shake out. Spoiler: I don’t have Kentucky as my SEC favorite.

Alabama continues its quest to be SEC basketball’s next great team

READ: Crimson Crossover

The Crimson Tide arguably have one of the most talented rosters in the league, and that should allow Nate Oats to lead the program back to the NCAA Tournament next season. However, can Alabama take the step that teams like Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, and South Carolina have taken and become a consistent SEC title contender?

Steve Forbes trying to rebuild Wake Forest into an ACC contender

READ: Heat Check CBB

Steve Forbes, who was an assistant under Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, had a ton of success at East Tennessee State. Now, he’s tasked with trying to return the Wake Forest program to national relevance. He joined us on the Marching to Madness podcast to share some thoughts on how he’s approaching the challenge.


Marching to Madness

We’ve surpassed 500 episodes on Marching to Madness, with hundreds of interviews with coaches around the country.

Some of our most recent episodes:

We’re working on team preview episodes for the 2020-21 season, so be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or any other podcast app you use.

Subscribe to Marching to Madness

Hoopin With Hoops

LISTEN: Hoopin With Hoops

I joined college basketball aficionado Greg Peterson on his podcast to preview the Atlantic Sun Conference heading into next season.


Here’s a variety of other stuff worth reading and listening to.

Hope’s 50-word Top 25: Way-too-early college basketball rankings: Connor Hope shared his early rankings for next season, with three SEC teams included.

Harkins’ way-too-early 2020-21 college basketball bracketology: Lukas Harkins put together an early bracketology for Heat Check CBB, and there are six SEC teams in the mix. He also has two on the bubble. Don’t worry, Alabama fans. For once, it’s not you.

The state of SEC basketball: Matthew Harris put together an awesome deep dive on where things stand in the SEC for Rock M Nation. While it was written a few weeks ago, it’s a fantastic look at each team.

Early ACC power rankings: For those of you who are ACC fans.

Early Big East power rankings: For those of you who are Big East fans.

The world of JUCO basketball: Kevin Sweeney had an awesome interview with Brandon Goble, who runs the @JUCOadvocate Twitter account.

Jordan Sperber’s Hoop Vision newsletter: If you love basketball, this is an invaluable newsletter with so much good stuff.

Heat Check CBB newsletter: If you want to keep up with all our work at Heat Check CBB, subscribe to the free newsletter. We also have a premium subscription tier for those who want even more college basketball coverage.

Subscribe to Heat Check CBB

Other Stuff

For everything else, subscribe to the newsletter and follow me on Twitter.

Follow Blake on Twitter

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