Skip to main content

Calipari's departure from Memphis has top recruits changing plans


Late on the afternoon of April 15, the first day of the NCAA's spring signing period, DeMarcus Cousins stood at the front desk of the Westin New York, waiting for a fax. When it arrived, he signed it -- while his coach from Leflore High in Mobile, Ala. Otis Hughley, took a cell-phone picture -- and then faxed it back to the sender. When the process was complete, Cousins received a call from assistant coach Orlando Antigua that said, "Welcome to the family."

The family in this case was Kentucky, for whom the 6-foot-10 Cousins,'s No. 2-rated center, will play next season. Three weeks before last Saturday's Jordan Brand Classic All-Star game in New York, though, Cousins had been set to join another family -- at Memphis. But on March 31, Tigers coach John Calipari left for Lexington, creating April Madness on the recruiting scene. Six of's top 50 players had their college plans affected, making the Class of 2009 a clan in flux.

Cousins (who, it should be noted, was once a UAB commitment long before he was a Memphis commitment) was the first marquee player to join Calipari at his new home. After the Jordan game, 6-10 Oklahoma City product Daniel Orton, Scout's third-ranked center, told SI he too would be a Wildcat. Orton had initially signed with Kentucky when former coach Billy Gillispie was there, then wavered following Gillispie's March 27 firing. Orton's brother, former Oklahoma State forward Terrence Crawford, said he followed Kentucky's wooing of Calipari -- and kept Orton briefed on the drama -- by reading CatsPause, a heavily trafficked fan message board. "The live feed of the door at Memphis," Crawford said, referring to a FOX affiliate's web-cam trained on athletic-department building exit, because Calipari was expected to emerge from it, "was hilarious."

Calipari never did walk through that door, but he did leave Memphis, which meant that Orton's former AAU teammate Xavier Henry, the top shooting guard in the Class of 2009 who signed with the Tigers, no longer had a coach. But both Henry and Nolan Dennis, the 10th-rated shooting guard in the class, had signed National Letters of Intent with the Tigers that conveniently contained clauses allowing them to be released if Calipari took another job. "I didn't have the idea to put the [clause] in there," Henry said. "Coach Cal did it for us."

As Henry played in the Jordan game, his older brother, C.J., a walk-on at Memphis last season who has been granted a transfer release, sat in the Madison Square Garden stands wearing a Tigers hat. The brothers had planned to play together at Memphis, and their first priority remains to be together on the same roster, somewhere. C.J. believes he may be able to obtain immediate eligibility at a new school because his Memphis tuition was paid for by the New York Yankees (he was a first-round pick of the club in 2005), and because he says he was the one who contacted Memphis first. "Because I wasn't recruited by Memphis, there's a complicated, one-time eligibility rule that will allow me to play," he told SI. (The NCAA rulebook seems to support C.J.'s claim as a "non-recruited exception" as long as he can prove he called Memphis first.)

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

C.J. said that he's still "leaning toward Memphis, a little bit," but that he and Xavier are also considering Kansas and Kentucky. Their parents, Carl and Barbara, both played college basketball at Kansas, and Barbara, who was in the stands with C.J., said she expects that the boys will end up on a roster together in Lexington or Lawrence -- although Memphis is still in the mix. "Until you're in this situation," Barbara said of all the coaching changes, "you never realize how many people are affected by it. It's just fortunate that our boys have options out."

One player with a vested interest in where Xavier attends is much-hyped New Yorker Lance Stephenson,'s top small forward in the Class of 2009. A McDonald's All-American, he was snubbed from the Jordan game in his hometown, but appeared in the stands anyway, and was seen getting his picture taken with rapper Fat Joe. Stephenson postponed his college choice -- which insiders expected to be Kansas -- once the Jayhawks began re-recruiting Henry, who plays the same position.

Calipari and Kansas coach Bill Self were in New York on Saturday, too, making late-night pitches to the Henry brothers. But both coaches are also chasing a bigger prize: point guard John Wall, a Derrick Rose-type from Raleigh's Word of God Christian Academy who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. Wall, who's in his fifth year of high school and will turn 19 in September, told last Thursday that rumors indicating he might apply for immediate NBA draft eligibility were untrue, saying he made a promise to his late father that he'd attend college.

Now Wall remains the most torn recruit of them all. He'd been leaning toward Memphis when Calipari was there, and was still considering eight schools last week while he played in the Jordan game. Kentucky and Duke appeared to be his front-runners, although Florida coach Billy Donovan came to Raleigh on Monday, and Wall still intends to visit Miami on April 24. Bigger long-shots are Kansas, Memphis, N.C. State and Baylor, even though the Bears hired his former AAU coach, Dwon Clifton, as their director of player development, in what was partly an attempt to lure Wall to Waco.

Wall said that North Carolina hadn't reached out to him since the Final Four -- and there's also the issue of his close advisor, AAU program director Brian Clifton, not being a big Roy Williams fan -- but it's expected that Wall will look at the Tar Heels once their point guard, Ty Lawson, finally enters his name in the draft. (Wall said on Friday that while UNC wasn't on his list, he still planned to "wait and see if [the Tar Heels] talk to me again.")

Wall's mother, Frances Pulley, who was in the stands in New York, seemed stressed by the decision awaiting her son. "With all this switching up, John's lost right now," she said. "I'll just be glad when it's over." The end may not come until May, or even June. Wall is so coveted that all of his potential new families are willing to wait.