With the announcement of several games over the last few months, everyone has known for some time now that Kentucky's 2014-15 nonconference schedule was going to be special.
Just how special became clear on Wednesday with the release of UK's full nonconference slate.
Kentucky will play 10 opponents who made the postseason in 2014, seven NCAA Tournament teams and a handful of programs who have legitimate hopes of making a run at the Final Four during this upcoming season.
UK will play bluebloods like Kansas and North Carolina, continue arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball with Louisville, and make neutral-site trips to the United Center in Chicago and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home to two of the Cats' exhilarating games during their magical 2014 NCAA Tournament run and the site of the 2015 Final Four.
Like last year, Kentucky will kick off the season with back-to-back home games at Rupp Arena, this time against Grand Canyon University (Nov. 14) and Buffalo (Nov. 16).
John Calipari is hoping the home games will prepare his team for an early-season showdown with Kansas on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis. The matchup with the Jayhawks, who trail only UK for the NCAA's most all-time wins, is a part of the State Farm Champions Classic. It's the fourth straight year Kentucky has participated in the event.
The Cats' stay on the road will be brief as they will return for an extended home stand. Over the course of nearly a month, UK will play eight games within the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. First up will be Boston (Nov. 21), followed by Montana State (Nov. 23), UT Arlington (Nov. 25) and Providence (Nov. 30). Kentucky played and beat the latter two last season.
The schedule then heats up at the start of December.
The Cats, who return eight scholarship players from last season's national runner-up team, will face off with an equally experienced Texas team on Dec. 3 before taking on Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 7), an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, and Columbia (Dec. 10).
The final three games of the nonconference schedule are as good as it gets. North Carolina concludes UK's mega home stand on Dec. 13 before the Cats head to Chicago to face UCLA for the inaugural CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 20.
Finally, Kentucky will close out the nonconference schedule with its annual rivalry game with Louisville on Dec. 27 at the KFC Yum! Center. This year's game is being dubbed as the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
UK's 2014 Southeastern Conference schedule will feature nine home games and nine away games, which will be announced at a later date. It's the second third straight year the SEC will feature an 18-game schedule.
Prior to the regular season, the Cats will host a pair of exhibition games at Rupp Arena. The first will be Nov. 2 against Pikeville followed by Georgetown College on Nov. 7. Both are in-state schools. Big Blue Madness is set for Oct. 17 and the annual Blue-White Scrimmage will be on Oct. 27.
Complete games times and TV information will be released at a later date.
A by-the-numbers breakdown of the schedule is available below, but first a look at the full nonconference schedule.
By the numbers
The schedule this season, as we mentioned above, is grueling.
Filled with some of the bluebloods of college basketball, opponents that made the NCAA Tournament last season and are only supposed to get better this year, and mid-majors who are expected to finish at or near the top of their league, it's hard to find a more challenging nonconference schedule than the one the Wildcats appear to have this year.
And that's not by coincidence.
Coach Cal, with the recent help of UK Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy, has always tried to form a slate that will prepare his players for the NCAA Tournament and put them in a position to compete for a national championship. The end goal is to bolster his team's RPI, give his players the best chance to succeed and help his program obtain a favorable NCAA Tournament seed, but he must do all that while making sure he doesn't break down his players before the SEC schedule rolls around.
Doing that isn't always easy.
How many big-time games against the likes of a team like Kansas is enough? How many is too many? How many neutral-site games do you play? When do you play marquee games with such a young team? What "mid-major" opponents are going to help your RPI and not hurt it? All those things go into consideration when Calipari and his staff build the schedule.
The 2014-15 schedule uses the same formula of the last couple of years in that it mixes neutral-site games that reflect an NCAA Tournament setting with marquee matchups at home and on the road.
But this one, on paper, looks to be the best of the Calipari era.
Taking the final rankings from last year, the average RPI of UK's nonconference opponent in 2014-15 is 97.4. Six opponents on the slate finished last season in the all-important RPI top 50, including five of the final seven nonconference opponents.
Furthermore, the Cats' 13 opponents in the upcoming year posted a winning percentage of .655 last season, considerably better than the .570 winning percentage UK's 13 opponents in 2012-13 ended with and still better than last year's admirable mark of .634. Remember, Kentucky's strength of schedule last season was No. 2 in the country and this one appears to be even tougher.
But perhaps the most telling proof of the difficulty of the schedule lies in the opponents' postseason play last year. Ten of the 13 nonconference opponents were in some sort of postseason tournament last season (that does not include conference tournaments) and seven of them were in the NCAA Tournament. Five of the teams made it to the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament or farther.
Obviously there is no way to predict how those opponents will do next season, but the majority of UK's opponents look primed to build on their 2013-14 success.
For one, Kentucky's most high-profile opponents next season -- Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Texas and UCLA -- return a bulk of their major producers from a year ago. All five are expected to be in the preseason top 25 and several could be in the top 10.
But the depth of the schedule comes with teams like Providence, Eastern Kentucky and Boston. The Friars play an exciting style of basketball that brought out the best in Willie Cauley-Stein last season, EKU nearly knocked Kansas out of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and Boston is expected to return four of its six leading scorers from its regular-season Patriot League championship squad.
It's impossible -- and unwise -- for Kentucky to avoid scheduling "mid-major" opponents, but UK can ill-afford to take those opponents lightly in 2014-15. Of UK's seven opponents from outside the so-called "major" conferences, five finished tied for third or better in 2013-14 regular-season play and one (Boston) finished atop the conference. That fits right in line with Calipari's philosophy to play teams that will content for their leagues' automatic bids.
Also of note, 13 of Kentucky's nonconference opponents will hail from 11 different conferences. UK will also play three opponents for the first time.
For those numbers and more, check out the breakdown chart below:
Coaches from throughout the league joined the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference this morning to talk about their teams as the offseason wears on. Perhaps realizing he hadn't spoken publicly in some time, John Calipari was in fine form addressing topics ranging from UK's upcoming Bahamas trip, the Rupp Arena renovation and the NBA's early-entry rules.
Here's everything he had to say, plus a bonus quote about the strength of the SEC from one of Coach Cal's peers.
On his team heading into next season ... "Well, for the first time I've had players return that had a chance to put their names in the draft, so we're in a unique situation where we have veterans. Now, granted those veterans are sophomores, two of them are juniors, but the other (six) are sophomores, it's kind of unusual for us. But I'm excited about it. The returning players and the freshmen are getting along so it's all good."
On how he hopes the trip to the Bahamas will contribute to the success he has next season ... "Well, we're doing it a little different than most teams. Most teams don't care about what the games are and, a matter of fact, will play teams that - and we did four years ago (when) I didn't care who we played in Canada - it's just practicing. But this is going to be different in that we will be traveling with 12. Ten will play. And we are having teams come with us: the Dominican Republic national team, the professional team from France, Division I, and then the older guys from Puerto Rico. They're not the national team -- they're playing in another event -- but it's that next wave of guys that almost made the team. They call it their second team. But I'm fine with that because those guys are older. It will be hard games for us to win. But we're doing it as much for the games, which is kind of unusual."
On his thoughts of the Rupp Arena renovation being suspended ... "I haven't really--I wasn't in town with all the stuff and really haven't read anything. I kind of got a little overview from DeWayne (Peevy), but like I said (before), I just hope everybody gets together and does what's right for the city and the university."
On how it would impact his job if he had guys for another year ... "Let me first say this one to you: Just if you know how I am and what I'm about, if you've really followed, I would rather them say that, after my entire group gets drafted - 'Yeah, I'm not really sure he develops players and he can coach' and all that stuff; 'they were pros' - but they all get drafted. OK, I'm good with that. That doesn't bother me. Say it as long as they keep continuing to get drafted. And then when they go to the league, they're on the all-rookie teams, they're rookie of the year, they're on Olympic teams, one is the MVP of the NBA. They're prepared in that sense, and that's what we're trying to do.
"The two-year rule, the reason I say that, this cycle that we're on - and there were coaches last year that had freshmen and their primary guys were freshmen and they couldn't advance in the NCAA Tournament and said after it's so difficult. Yeah, it is. Well, let's start five freshmen and try to do it. So to do this every year is, in this environment at Kentucky, is, I don't want to say impossible because for five years we've done it, but we did have a year when Nerlens (Noel) got hurt. If he doesn't get hurt, we're probably a Sweet 16 team. But he does get hurt and now we're an NIT team. Not only are we an NIT team, we lose in the first round. It's just a dangerous thing for the coach. Now, for our players, I'm happy as heck. If it goes to two years, I think they'll be better prepared, but you cannot do that unless the NCAA is going to do things along with the NBA if kids are asked to stay another year. I mean, are you going to do the cost of living? Are you going to cover their insurance? What about loss-of-value insurance that's really expensive? What about flying them back and forth once or twice a year? Why would we not do that? What about their families being flown to the NCAA events, the championship events, with the team? Why would we not do all those things? So we finally, after five years of absolute arm-wrangling, got the food right so that we can feed these kids without feeling we're going to go to jail, that we're criminals for feeding them. So those are the kind of things that have to be done. It's not just, make this about kids. We need to do stuff with combines so kids get the right information. You don't want a kid to leave and not get drafted. And if a kid should leave, he should leave. If he's a first-round pick, if he's a lottery pick, he should leave. Don't have him stay so you win more games, then the next year he's in a worse position. But if he's a second-round pick and not getting drafted and he's in a combine where the NBA can tell him that, they come back to school now. So there's a lot of things that we need to do and we're moving in that direction. Now, it's taken 40 years but we're moving in that direction now."
On whether more kids would go to Europe if the age limit went to 20 ... "No. I don't, but here's the thing: You have to understand, that's between the NBA and the Players Association. We have to be on the side of the players, on the side of the students. We have to be on their side, which is, how do we get them the information so they make the right choices? How do we do things that we treat them with more dignity, that we treat them more fairly? OK, again, those are the things that we need to do. We have no control - none - on what the NBA and the Players Association agree to. I said to the NBA: Instead of a four-year contract, make it a three-year contract so by staying in school it doesn't hurt them. They still get to the money the same time, the big contracts the same time as they would have if they'd stayed in school two year. But, are we willing to do things? Are we willing to maybe have those parents request loans directly from the NBA that they have to pay back when they go to the NBA? What about that as a solution to some of the stuff? So there's all kind of things out there. And let me say this: It's not at the expense of academics. We're here, we've had four years. This past semester were a 3.11 (grade-point average). Our APR going into next year, which means every kid we've had has finished here in good academic standing. Obviously, we've had a 3.0 for the last four years. We've graduated 10 players. We've brought three players back. Our kids sign four-year deals if they leave after one or two years, the scholarship is still waiting on them. We're doing things outside of that to make sure we're taking care of what we can within the rules and going above and beyond to do that. But there's still other things that need to be done." On what he tells players about what will happen if they enter the NBA Draft early ... "Well, I don't do it that way. What I do is I give them the information. I have them get information directly from the NBA office. I give them information (from) GMs who are friends of mine in the NBA and say, 'This is where it appears. Check with the NBA and I'm with you with whatever you do. If you're a late first-rounder, can you deal with (it)?' I give them the downside. 'Are you going to be able to deal with being a second-round pick because that could happen. If you can't deal with that, then you come back.' If you say, 'I'm OK if that happens,' then you can think strongly about leaving. 'If you want to be a top-10 pick, you're not right now and you're going to have to come back to be a top-10 pick. But if that's OK to be the 18th or the 20th or 17th, I'm good with it.' I literally spend five minutes with them. There are no four-hour brainwashing, all the staff beating them down. Five minutes. And you can talk to all the kids. Matter of fact I thought Willie (Cauley-Stein) was leaving. The conversation we had the next morning after the national championship game was congratulating. I'm proud of you. You were a football player two years ago. No one knew who you were. You weren't a McDonald's All-American. You weren't, 'He was one-and-done before he got there.' That's not what he was and he was a top-15 pick. And he came in my office the following day and said, 'I want to come back.' I go, 'What?' He said, 'One, I'm having a ball. Two, I'm not ready for that league to do what I want to do. Three, I want to win a 'ship before I leave.' I said, 'That's good reasons to come back.' So the conversations I had with guys are kind of like that."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On the strength of the SEC ... "I'm tired of this (fallacy) and myth that our league is no good. I'm tired of it. I think it's disrespectful to the coaches in this league. I think anytime you try to convince Billy (Donovan) or Cal or Mike Anderson, guys that have had tremendous success everywhere they've been, Bruce Pearl now that he's back in the league, Billy Kennedy, the successes he's had - just keep going on down the line - the successes that they've had in their careers and trying to say that their success right now is not very good because our league is not very good, I think that's a little disrespectful and untrue. Our league is extremely hard. I've said it for a couple years: We were in transition and I think our league is now starting to take shape. I think coaches are establishing their programs for those of us that, we weren't where it needed to be. Kevin Stallings, Billy, guys that have been in the league forever, they're always going to have programs that are going to line up and go. And I think you're going to start seeing our league move forward as we continue to stabilize programs such as ours."
Julius Randle and James Young were chosen with the No. 7 and 17 picks in the NBA Draft, respectively, on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Julius Randle smiled when he heard his name called.
He dished out hugs to his mother, his mentor and his head coach as he walked to the podium. He looked the part of a happy draftee when he shook hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
It wasn't until ESPN analyst Jay Williams asked Randle whether he thought he should have been selected earlier than No. 7 overall that he admitted to another emotion.
"I think I should have went higher for sure, but the teams that passed on me will regret it," Randle said.
It wasn't pride or false bravado that made Randle feel that way either. The newest Los Angeles Laker and UK's ninth lottery pick in the last five years simply believed he was the best player in the 2014 NBA Draft and plans to prove it.
Don't think mistake Randle's drive for bitterness though. He's happy to become a Laker.
"I was offered some great advice before this: It's not where you start; it's where you finish," Randle said. "And L.A.' s a perfect spot for me. I'm really happy to be going there."
When Randle's name was called, John Calipari was heard on the ESPN broadcast telling Randle Los Angeles is exactly where he hoped the bruising forward who led UK to the national championship game as a freshman would go.
"I get to go play in a great city, a great franchise that expects nothing but championships, great market, great organization," Randle said. "And Kobe Bryant, my idol growing up. So I couldn't be more ecstatic about where I'm going."
Similarly, the Lakers were elated when the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle -- who averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds in his lone UK season -- was still available.
"We had him on our board much better than a No. 7 selection, so we were surprised when he was there," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "When we do the draft, we rank according to what we think is going to be the best player going forward. So he was the best player on the board. We didn't think he'd be there. He's a player that will bode well in Los Angeles. He competes hard. He plays hard. He loves contact. Great kid. Those are attributes that anybody would love to have on an NBA team."
James Young, Randle's teammate, will make a similar transition. Ten picks after Randle went off the board, the athletic swingman was tabbed by the Boston Celtics with the No. 17 overall pick, where he will join fellow former Wildcats Rajon Rondo and Keith Bogans.
"The Lakers (and) Celtics are the (two) most storied programs in the NBA (and) our guys are headed to both," Coach Cal tweeted. "What could be better?"
In the Green Room with Randle and Calipari, Young was excited when he learned he was Boston-bound.
"I'm very excited to be drafted by this organization and I can't wait to get started," Young said according to the Louisville Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker. "It's been a long time coming."
With Randle and Young's selection, UK has now had multiple first-round selections in all five years of the Calipari era. Since the draft went to two rounds in 1989, UK is the only program to accomplish the feat. All told, UK has had two No. 1 picks, 15 first-round picks and 19 total players selected in the NBA Draft during Coach Cal's time in Lexington and 110 in the history of the program.
UK announced on Tuesday that freshman Trey Lyles is recovering from a medical procedure on his left leg. The recovery process will force him to miss UK's games as part of a trip to the Bahamas in August, but Lyles is expected to return in time for practice in October.
Lyles will join junior Willie Cauley-Stein on the sideline. Cauley-Stein underwent surgery after the season to repair a stress fracture in his left foot.
Soon after the news came out, John Calipari took to Twitter to talk about it.
Like Willie, we're going to hold Trey out for the games in the Bahamas while he recovers from a medical procedure.
Lyles, a 6-foot-10 forward from Indianapolis, Ind., is a member of UK's highly touted incoming freshman class. He and his three classmates -- Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Karl-Anthony Towns -- are on campus along with a deep and talented crop of returnees from last year's national runner-up team.
The conversations that led to John Calipari's new contract were fairly straightforward.
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart wasn't trying to do anything other than keep the right coach for Kentucky basketball at Kentucky.
"This was agreed to in principle right after the season," Calipari said in a phone interview. "It was let's try to get this right and let's try to get it right for your staff. I want this to be someplace you're comfortable being the rest of your career, and I said, 'That's good, let's do it.' "
They got it done.
On Thursday, UK made official a new contract for Calipari that will last through the end of the 2020-21 season. For Barnhart, the deal is a commitment to a coach who has restored UK to its rightful place atop the college basketball world and deserved recognition of his work.
"We feel like we have one of the premier coaches in college basketball and he certainly needs to be rewarded and recognized for all the things he has accomplished," Barnhart said. "It has long been our goal over the last three to five years that Cal enjoy this as his final stop in coaching and that he has an opportunity to finish his career at the University of Kentucky and hopefully set standards and win championships that will be remembered for many, many years to come."
The contract comes after yet another season of Calipari's name being attached to various NBA jobs through rumor and innuendo, in spite of Coach Cal's constant reassertions of his happiness in Lexington. Putting pen to paper yet again reinforces that he doesn't plan on going anywhere.
"I certainly think the university has made an incredible commitment to Cal and this is a further indication from him that this is where he wants to be long term," Barnhart said. "I think that loyalties are very, very important in the world today. In college athletics it's very hard to find, and his loyalty to this program and this university as many times as his name has popped up is indicative of him wanting to be here and to continue to grow this program.
"I'm sure he's had other opportunities to try the NBA again, but I'm not sure there is an NBA job that is any better than what this program and this fan base can give."
Calipari's contract will increase his annual salary to $6.5 million next season if he returns the following season. The numbers are big and Barnhart doesn't hide from that fact, but deal is dictated by an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The men's basketball program, along with football, plays a crucial role in the success of UK Athletics, helping to fund the 20 other sports sponsored by the school and maintain UK's status as one of the few self-sustaining athletics departments in the nation. As much basketball tradition as UK may have, the importance of an elite coach leading the way cannot be overstated.
"We certainly have the most incredible fan base for basketball," Barnhart said. "We have great facilities. Obviously we always have a dynamic schedule and great exposure. If you put all of those things together and you don't have someone at the head of the thing leading it the right way, it can quickly go the wrong direction. So he has been the right person at the right time at the University of Kentucky and has done a fabulous job of leading our program and is very deserving of an extension of his contract."
Calipari didn't pretend to know what outsiders will make of his new contract, nor does he care all that much. His only interest is continuing to do work at UK that can be done in precious few places.
"All I know is that Kentucky is one of those places that is unique to work," Calipari said. "There's great satisfaction, yet it's one of those jobs that it's hard to stay on top of. It's just what it is. I don't know the statement that's made other than hopefully people look at us and they see that we've set a standard on a lot of different fronts, from academics to what we've done on the court to developing players to developing young men and then also what this position can do as far philanthropic endeavors and how this position can be leveraged into something that's bigger than all of the little pieces combined."
When Barnhart hired Calipari five years ago -- time both agreed has "flown" by -- that was the goal both had in mind, to compete at the highest level while also enriching the lives of the student-athletes who made it all possible. On both fronts, it's impossible to qualify Calipari's tenure as anything other than a success.
Calipari's record at UK is a sterling 152-37 (.804 winning percentage), including 18-3 in NCAA Tournament play with a national championship, another title game appearance this season, a Final Four Berth and a trip to the Elite Eight. No school has more wins than Kentucky in the tournament since Calipari's arrival.
It's a similar story of excellence off the floor.
For the sixth time in seven semesters, UK posted a team grade-point average of 3.0 or better this spring. The program's APR scores also remain high, including a perfect score of 1,000 in 2012-13 and a most recent four-year composite score of 989.
"What Cal has done is returned us to those glory days of Final Fours and championship efforts, great players, and all along he's helped young people understand the responsibility of going to class, of the commitment to each other and to a program that has as rich of a tradition as this one does," Barnhart said. "So those are not easy tasks at any level, and he manages it all with incredible effort, great excellence and has done a marvelous job of managing the program."
Calipari had a vision for what he could accomplish when he became coach, but even he could not have foreseen all this.
"You know what, I knew it was a unique place," Calipari said, "but if you told me you would have nearly 20 guys drafted in five years, that you'd have the number of wins that we've had, which may be the most in the country, that you'd have three Final Fours, two national championship games and all that, and have four straight years of a 3.0 or better, and have an APR that is one of the highest in the league, I would have said, 'You're asking for everything. You want everything!' "
By recruiting at an unprecedented level and focusing on helping student-athletes achieve their dreams, Calipari has delivered. To the former players who starred at UK and now are scattered throughout the NBA, that's why Coach Cal's new contract is so important.
"This is a great move for the basketball program and the university as a whole," John Wall said. "Coach means more to UK than just wins on the floor. He helps change lives for both his players and their families, as well as people in the community in ways that a lot of people don't know. I'm really happy for him and his family."
Wall and his fellow former Wildcats know Calipari in a way few do. Because of that, they know there's no better coach for Kentucky.
"I have the utmost respect for Cal," said Anthony Davis, who followed Wall as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. "He has always had my best interests in mind, from before the recruiting process, while I was at Kentucky and now that I'm gone. He's like a father figure to so many players that come through UK. He really wants to help all of us succeed in our own ways. I'm glad to see that he will be the coach at Kentucky for a long time."
Exactly how long remains to be seen.
Coaching at Kentucky, according to Barnhart, is a 24/7 proposition and Calipari knows it's not a challenge that can be undertaken half-heartedly.
"It's not a place that you can plant your flag for a 28-year run nowadays," Calipari said. "It's just not. As long as I'm having a lot of fun, as long I am helping families and young people reach their dreams, I'll be good. But again, my plan all along, even when I was 30, was I'm going to coach until I'm 55 or 60 and give everything I have while I'm doing it. Leave nothing on the table."
With that approach, Calipari continues to raise the bar and expectations have followed suit. Add in his new deal and a stacked 2014-15 roster and those expectations go through the roof.
"The contract is substantial," Barnhart said. "There's no question about that. High expectations come with those kinds of things. So it's not easy. You do get rewarded for some of the things you've done, but with those rewards also come expectations and those come for a variety of reasons. One, it comes from where you live. You live at Kentucky; the expectations are already there. You add to it outstanding recruiting. And then you throw on top of that a contract and everybody goes, 'Well, those three things together, the expectations went from one level to another level.' "
"I will tell you that it's been an amazing five years," Calipari said. "And now, it's Kentucky - there's an expectation that we're going to do better. I don't even know what better would be. I mean, what is better? Like, let's go for it, but I don't even know what that would look like."
If his first five years are indication, Calipari might just surprise himself again over the next seven.
Jodie Meeks will participate in UK's commencement ceremonies on Saturday. (UK Athletics)
Five years ago now, Jodie Meeks decided to forgo his final season of collegiate eligibility and enter the NBA Draft.
Kentucky fans, of course, would always have a special affinity for the sweet-shooting All-American guard, but they likely figured his days in Lexington -- save for an occasional visit -- were done.
Instead, Meeks has returned to campus every summer to attend classes. In that time, he's had more than his share of interactions with students surprised to the NBA millionaire lugging around a backpack.
"They usually recognize me right off the bat," Meeks said. "They look at me like what am I doing here. So I just look at them the same way. It's always fun. It's always fun seeing people's reactions. I'm a regular person just like them so when I'm trying to get my degree I just ask them, 'What are you doing here? I'm doing the same thing.' "
On Saturday, he'll don a cap and gown and realize that goal.
Meeks will be among 60 current and former UK student-athletes who will participate in commencement ceremonies, following the 30 who did the same in December. He still has a class to finish up this summer, but he will take a walk on Saturday that's been eight years in the making with his family in attendance.
As soon as he decided to declare for the draft, Meeks committed to complete his coursework and graduate. Even as his NBA career has blossomed and taken him from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Meeks has remained true to that commitment and will finally earn that degree in business marketing.
"Once I get my mind set on something, I usually do it 99 percent of the time," said Meeks, who memorably set UK's single-game scoring record with 54 points against Tennessee. "When I left school early -- I wasn't sure that I would leave early - but when I did, I made a commitment to myself and my family that I would do it. It just feels good to have it done now and just finally be done Saturday."
Well established as a professional after a career season with the Lakers, Meeks is likely to sign a lucrative deal this summer. Nonetheless, the degree he is about to receive gives him a sense of security no contract ever could.
"One thing I don't do in basketball but especially in life is take things for granted," Meeks said. "You never know how long your career will last, but once you have a degree, you can have it forever. You can do a lot of stuff with my degree. Once I get out of playing basketball I'll be able to do that."
Before then, Meeks has free agency to think about.
He just finished the final season of a two-year deal with the Lakers, posting career highs in scoring (15.7 points per game), rebounds (2.5), assists (1.8), steals (1.4), field-goal percentage (.463) and 3-point percentage (40.1). Meeks called the season "bittersweet" since the Lakers finished well outside the playoff picture with a record of 27-55, but there's mistaking the fact that his big season has given him options.
He'll start thinking about them later.
"It's still early," Meeks said. "It's only May, so I'm not officially allowed to talk to anyone until July. So right now just focusing on this last class and this degree and I'll think about basketball in July and August, September and things like that. But I should be in a pretty good situation. I had a pretty good year, put myself in a good predicament for next year. So just have to make the best decision for myself."
That's exactly what Meeks did when he declared for the draft in 2009. He never second-guessed his decision -- and why would he considering where he is today? -- but admits the what-if scenarios UK fans so often play out when they think about the 2009-10 season do cross his mind.
That team -- John Calipari's first at Kentucky -- was one of the most talented in recent college basketball memory. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe manned the backcourt, while DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson patrolled the paint. Along with those four established NBA players, the Cats had future draft picks Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller.
Perimeter shooting ultimately felled that group, as the Cats shot just 4 of 32 from 3 in a 73-66 Elite Eight loss. It's difficult to imagine West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone working nearly so well with Jodie Meeks -- who hit 117 3s in a record-setting junior season -- on the floor.
"I think about that too," Meeks said. "I don't think we would have lost a game, in my opinion. It would have been a fun team. Sometimes I think, 'What if I'd have stayed, would my life have been different here?' But I felt like it was the best decision for myself."
Things have worked out OK for Kentucky too.
As Meeks has flourished in the NBA, Calipari has led UK to three Final Four berths in the last four seasons, including a national title in 2012 and another trip to the championship game in April.
Meeks liked the idea of playing for a coach he missed by a season in Lexington, but it's hard for him to understand why Calipari would ever leave.
"I was excited maybe that he could coach me, but if I was him I wouldn't leave here," Meeks said. "You know, it's a great place to coach and play. He has it made here, you know. So that would be up to him, but I wouldn't go anywhere."
Makes sense, especially since Meeks keeps coming back.