John Calipari, Self & Musselman Couldn’t Be Farther Apart in New-ish Strategies

John Calipari, Eric Musselman, Bill Self, Arkansas basketball, Kansas basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Craven Whitlow / Kansas Athletics

Roster construction has always been an annual puzzle-making activity in the college basketball landscape, but the advent of transfer portal mania and NIL payouts has turned that practice on its head.

Coaches have scrambled to adapt in recent years, leading to the growth of widely varying schools of thought on how best to build a contending roster.

One recent method, at least for blue blood programs, was perfected by none other than new Arkansas basketball coach John Calipari during his 15 years at Kentucky that saw him sign five star after five star, year in and year out.

Due to a variety of factors – COVID years, eligibility waivers and NIL making staying in school more profitable than it used to be, among them – college rosters have on average become older. That’s forced masters of the one-and-done like Calipari to evolve.

“The lesson was you can’t do this now with seven freshmen,” Calipari said after Kentucky’s first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament in March. “You’re going to hit a team that’s 25 years old on average, one was 26, and that team is physically going to get you.”

This shift poses a new challenge to coaches as they seek the right balance between maintaining continuity, adding high-impact transfers and also preserving the future of the program by bringing in enough high school recruits. 

“We’re not going to take six, seven freshmen now. It’ll be three or four. Hopefully retain a few and get a couple transfers. That’s the formula.”

Sure enough, Arkansas’ current roster reflects that recipe. Three freshmen, one returning Razorback, three Kentucky players following Calipari to Fayetteville, a couple of experienced transfers and a partridge in a pear tree.

Such a formula is, of course, still an inexact science. So here’s a deep dive into the wild world of roster-building in college basketball, starting with the Head Hog himself.

John Calipari’s New Strategy Pushes Limits on Team Building

In addition to upping the average age of his team, Coach Cal also wants to whittle down the number of players on his squad. “You may think I’m crazy, but I told my staff I only want to have eight or nine guys,” Calipari said on the “Ways to Win” podcast in May. “They’re leaving anyway, and why would I develop a kid for someone else?”

Coach Cal added that he plans to fill the rest of those spots with walk-ons and graduate assistants.

“I want those [graduate assistants] to have played in Europe or just got done playing and can still play,” he said. “The women’s programs have five guys that they call ‘managers,’ but that’s who they scrimmage against. Maybe I do it that way.”

“We have some walk-ons, we have some [graduate assistants], we have eight or nine guys and that’s it. And if there’s a 10th guy, he knows he’s the 10th guy.”

Arkansas is currently sitting at nine scholarship players, which suggests that Calipari already has his main pieces in place for next year. Any future additions will be supplementary.

When Calipari explained his line of thinking to reporters a few weeks ago, the supplementary walk-ons he described didn’t sound like the kind who carry towels and hand out water bottles – it sounds like he’s looking for a traditional scholarship player.

“When we talk about walk-ons, it’s a different era. A walk-on for me will be on full scholarship…like the old days,” Calipari said below. “He’s going to work his way into the NIL.”

The introduction of NIL has completely changed how we label players. No longer are there simply 13 scholarship players and 2 walk-ons for every team. It’s not as binary when every player is on a different salary. Based on what Coach Cal has said so far this offseason, it sounds like this is what he’s looking for:

  • 9-10 scholarship players who are receiving NIL and will be staples in the rotation
  • 3-4 scholarship players that won’t intially receive NIL and come in knowing they will mostly ride the bench

The first category consists of the nine players that Arkansas has already brought in, but the latter is the one that piques the interest the most. How do you find guys who are simultaneously good enough to take up a roster spot, but also not so good that they command substantial playing time and money?

That’s the type of player we’ll likely see the Arkansas basketball staff hunting for as the offseason progresses.

Calipari Inspired by UNC Legend to Form New Model

While Coach Cal’s plan for the upcoming season appears to be a bit outside the box, it’s not an entirely new idea. In fact, he said it himself on the Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday that he took inspiration from a certain legendary former North Carolina coach.

“Coach Dean Smith, back in the day, recruited for 10, 11 and 12. Recruited specifically for that spot,” Calipari said. “I want eight or nine guys on scholarship, NIL, all that. Then I want 10, 11 and 12…I’m doing it kind of like North Carolina.”

He added that those three additional guys will be “good players.” Not world beaters or big-name guys, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t beat somebody.”

“Less is more,” according to Calipari.

Bill Self Ahead of the Curve?

Arkansas, of course, it’s alone is navigating modern college basketball’s particular predicament. Indeed, it looks like Kansas basketball coach Bill Self had already established something of a roadmap last year despite his program’s disappointing season

The Jayhawks entered the 2023-24 campaign with sky-high expectations as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. After landing All-American transfer big man Hunter Dickinson, the feeling in Lawrence was “natty or bust.” Unfortunately for them (but to the glee of the rest of the country), the latter came true as they fell well short of expectations.

Sixth place in the Big 12, a first-weekend exit from the Big Dance and double-digit losses on the season. Far from a fairy-tale story.

Self even admitted after the tournament loss to Gonzaga that he’d already been looking ahead to next season for a while. His regrets could potentially be part of a cautionary tale for Arkansas in the upcoming season, as the Hogs currently sit at nine scholarship players.

The Jayhawks, too, entered last season with just nine scholarship players – partially as a result of NCAA penalties that were imposed on the program – and ended up being hit by an injury crisis, going 10-10 in their final 20 games. For parts of conference play, Kansas was only able to field seven players.

“Even for a coach who tends to favor an eight-man rotation, this team’s bench is way too short,” KU sportswriter Joel Wagler wrote in February.

Bill Self doesn’t plan to get caught with his pants down again. He has a plan to prevent what happened last go-around.

Bill Self’s New Plan for Kansas Basketball

“I want eight starters,” Self said in May. “You can only start five, obviously, but have eight guys that are good enough to be in the game at any point in time.”

Sound familiar? Self and Calipari certainly have similar thoughts here, and looking at how Kansas’ roster is shaping up for next year, it mirrors what Arkansas is doing. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Key returners: Hunter Dickinson, Dajuan Harris Jr., KJ Adams Jr., Jamari McDowell
  • Big-name transfers: AJ Storr, Zeke Mayo, Rylan Griffen, Shakeel Moore
  • Blue-chip recruits: Rakease Passmore and Flory Bidunga

Tallying it up, that comes out to 10 Kansas players in that “key contributor” category for next year, not counting big man Elmarko Jackson, who’s set to miss the season with an injury. Center Zach Clemence falls into the “traditional scholarship player” mold after redshirting last season and returning to Lawrence.

Additionally, Self has added a number of walk-ons to the squad. A few of them are local boys primed to be elite towel wavers on the bench, but there are also a couple noteworthy potential contributors. That includes freshman Will Thengvall, who was named 5A Player of the Year in the state of Kansas. He’s a prime candidate for “working his way into the NIL,” as Calipari said.

Breaking it down like this shows a number of parallels in how Self and Calipari want to build their rosters, and that’s no surprise given that they are programs near the top of the food chain with very similar aspirations.

Checking in on the UConn Juggernaut

Turning to the east coast, Self said to “look at Connecticut” as an example of a team with great year-to-year turnover.

“Connecticut had their main guys, there’s no doubt,” he said. “You could bring a guy off the bench and rest somebody for a certain period of time, whether it be in the pivot or a rotational guard or whatever, and there’s not a dropoff.”

Dan Hurley, notably not the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, has his Huskies in a position to contend once again. Stratton Stave from UConnReport, the Rivals affiliate covering the Huskies, broke down the 12 players making up the current projected roster.

Stave listed five projected starters, three rotational pieces on the front of the bench and a question mark on veteran Alex Karaban, though he has since announced his intention to make a surprise return to Storrs. The other three players fall into the category of “role players/bench,” and are not expected to make much of an impact.

Again, a similar look to the way Calipari and Self are approaching things. Nine or ten key pieces with a few fringe guys who, importantly, know they are fringe guys.

How Other Blue Bloods are Building Rosters

It appears John Calipari’s model of packing the court with five-star freshmen might still be alive, after all, thanks to Duke head coach Jon Scheyer. A quick glance at the Blue Devils’ roster for next season shows six blue-chip recruits fresh on campus – which includes the unanimous top prospect in the country in Cooper Flagg.

The rest of the roster is comprised of two key returnees in the backcourt in Tyrese Proctor and Caleb Foster, former five-star recruits in their own right. A trio of transfers in Sion James (Tulane), Mason Gillis (Purdue) and Maliq Brown (Syracuse) round out the team’s core.

Two other transfers in Cameron Sheffield (Rice) and Neal Begovich (Stanford), who both played limited roles at their previous schools, round out the scholarship spots.

After an Elite Eight run in March, Scheyer will look to build off that success in his third season at the helm of the program. It’s a heavy burden that he’s placing on teenage shoulders, and puts the Duke roster within Calipari’s previously-mentioned no-no zone of “six, seven freshmen.” It remains to be seen how that will turn out.

North Carolina, meanwhile, seem to be joining the Head Hog in following in the footsteps of the legendary Coach Smith by only having 11 scholarship players on the roster for next year. It’s a healthy mix of returners like RJ Davis and Elliot Cadeau, key transfers like Cade Tyson (Belmont) and a pair of five-star freshmen in Drake Powell and Ian Jackson.

Andrew Jones from Tar Heel Illustrated gave his take on UNC rocking a not-quite-full roster for the second year in a row.

“I like the idea of 11 scholarship players. I think that’s going to be more of a trend moving forward,” he said. “The big programs are going to have a lot of changeover if they go with 13 scholarship guys.”

“The mindset of the player these days isn’t the same as it was even six or seven years ago where they come in, they wait their turn, they work, they improve, and they get more playing time.”

Jones added that while some players will become “program guys” and stick around, “it’s not going to be the norm.”

That sounds a lot like Calipari’s question of what the point was for him to invest time and NIL money in a player that’s going to ride the bench and transfer out after a year. It seems like Coach Cal’s model aligns with that of UNC, both past and present.

Nate Oats Reloads SEC Frontrunner

Fresh off leading Alabama to its first Final Four in program history, head coach Nate Oats spurned interest from Kentucky to instead return and rebuild the juggernaut he’s built in Tuscaloosa. When talking about trying to find the right formula that mixes talent and experience, it appears Oats has a recipe that may land the Crimson Tide as the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

Marquee returners like Mark Spears, Javin Stevenson and Grant Nelson? Check. Big-name transfers like Clifford Omoruyi and Aden Holloway? You bet. Multiple McDonald’s All-Americans in Derrion Reid and Aidan Sherrell? Cherry on top.

Oats has gone pedal to the metal with this roster, clearly unbothered by other coaches’ concerns about overstocking the cabinet. Every returning player had a key role in the Final Four squad from last year, every transfer earned all-conference honors at their previous school and every high school recruit is in the top 50 nationally. 

So who’s going to ride the bench out of that group? And the better question, who’s going to do that happily?

The Tide are clearly willing to run the risk of a few angry faces in the locker room in favor of crafting the most formidable roster in the country. It’s hard to see any of those 13 guys not playing a key role next year, which makes the lineup scary on paper but also presents an obvious chemistry dilemma for Oats.

But the saying goes that winning cures all ills, and Alabama is in a position to do plenty of that next season.

Checking in on Eric Musselman at USC

It’s also worth taking a look at how a familiar face is doing back home on the west coast. Arkansas fans are very familiar with Eric Musselman’s roster-building model by now. Every year is a clean slate to start anew on. Ship everyone out, bring in an entire new batch of transfers, rinse and repeat Sometimes it works, sometimes it flames out horribly.

So how’s it going for him at USC? So far, it looks like a new year, a new school and the same Coach Muss.

The Trojans’ roster currently features – brace yourself – 18 players. He’s twice as many as the Hogs’ current squad. Here’s the breakdown: 11 new transfers, two high school signees, one returning player and four walk-ons. Yes, that means Musselman has 14 “scholarship players,” which is over the limit of 13.

Ryan Young from Rivals’ TrojanSports said after the most recent commitment that “USC had already filled its maximum 13 scholarship spots, but in the NIL era programs have found a way around such limits.”

Musselman’s roster-building frenzy will be exciting to watch from a distance. As Arkansas fans know all too well, bringing in that many new faces can allow a program to turn around their fortunes quickly, but can also lead to poor team chemistry that turns to disaster. The revolving door on the Muss Bus certainly represents the extreme side of the transfer portal era, for better or worse.

The Future of College Basketball Rosters

It appears that, with a few exceptions, the common model that coaches have adopted is a constant search for the right blend of youth, talent and experience. Sometimes that comes in the form of a jam-packed 13-man roster, but other time it just means nine smartly-recruited pieces that mesh together well.

The rules of the game shape how it’s played, and there’s no doubt that the introduction of NIL and the transfer portal have created a dilemma for coaches around the country. It will be interesting to see what the next evolution of roster-building will be in the next few years as coaches continue to adapt to the NCAA’s constantly-changing landscape.

Calipari’s comments on roster-building caused plenty of raised eyebrows at the thought of not having a fully kitted-out squad next year, but upon closer inspection, his thinking is actually closely in line with what most elite coaches are going for these days.

Whether Arkansas can garner the banner-raising results that Kansas, North Carolina and UConn have achieved in the last few years remains to be seen, but Calipari certainly has put the Hogs on the right track so far..

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See the latest on Arkansas basketball here:

Full interview with John Calipari on the Dan Patrick Show:

More on Kansas basketball and Bill Self:

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS:

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