Ever since the NBA raised its minimum age limit from 18 to 19 years old in 2006, the one-and-done phenomenon has taken off. Since players can no longer jump right from high school to the pros, many elite basketball programs are now mere checkpoints for top players on their way to the NBA. In the last few years, no program has personified this one-and-done phenomenon more than the University of Kentucky.
Since John Calipari took over the program in 2009, 10 Wildcats have only spent one year on campus during his four seasons there. This includes John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Coach Cal recruits players with the expectation — both from the player’s standpoint and his standpoint — that they will likely only be in Lexington for one season. Sometimes this philosophy pays off as it did with a national championship in 2012, and sometimes, like this past season, it does not. However, no matter the results, with six McDonald’s All-Americans heading to campus next season, Calipari’s philosophy is not changing any time soon. That is what makes the case of Julius Mays so unique.
See Mays, Kentucky’s elder statesmen this season at 23 years old, was also a one-and-done for the program, but his path to Kentucky was much longer than the one his freshmen teammates took. Coming out of high school, Mays was a lightly-recruited shooting guard out of Marion, Indiana who chose to attend North Carolina State over offers from Xavier, Western Michigan and Ball State.
After two disappointing seasons in Raleigh, he transferred to Wright State, a mid-major school in the Horizon League. Per NCAA transfer rules, Mays had to sit out his first season at Wright State before becoming eligible during the 2011-12 season. During that year, he averaged 14.1 points before deciding to transfer again after the season.
Even as his team’s leading scorer, Coach Cal was not interested in Mays initially despite losing his top six scorers from the 2012 national title team. Graduate transfers were not part of the way he put his teams together, and he wasn’t really intrigued by Mays. Instead, the best recruiter in college basketball had the tables turned on him. Mays recruited Calipari.
“He really wanted to be with us,” Calipari says. “At the time we were talking to him, we didn’t even think he would start for us, and that he would be coming off the bench. We didn’t know what position he would play, and we told him he would likely be in the top eight, but we couldn’t even promise him that and he wanted to come anyway.”
Without promises, Mays still wanted to enroll at Kentucky because as a self-described competitor, he wanted to prove he belonged with the best. Unlike most of Kentucky’s one-and-dones, Mays would only have one year on campus regardless of whether he wanted to or not. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis could have stayed on campus for four years if they really wanted to, but Mays’ time was limited. He was in the last year of his NCAA eligibility, having played at two other Division I schools.
Upon arriving at Kentucky, Mays was initially overwhelmed.
“Nothing compares, nothing at all,” Mays says. “All those other places kind of got me semi-ready, but I still didn’t know what I was in for going to the University of Kentucky with their fan-base and going into every arena and being everybody’s Super Bowl. So it was some type of preparation at those other places, but not the type one would need. Going to Kentucky is big. You have to have a lot of mental toughness in order to handle the scrutiny you are going to receive, both positive and negative.”
For many people, both Kentucky fans and those in the media, it is easy to expect greatness each year from the Wildcats. Prior to last season, Calipari’s teams had reached the Elite Eight, Final Four and won the NCAA title. Expectations were no different this season as the team started the season ranked in the top five. However, this team was different in that it was younger than any Calipari team before. All of his prior teams had veteran leaders with significant playing experience. In 2009-10, it was Patrick Patterson. In ’10-11, it was Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson, and in ’11-12 it was Miller and Terrence Jones. Last season, there was nobody.