After fielding a plethora of blue-chip, top-5 NBA players in the last half decade, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has obviously done it again. And this time, his young Wildcats roster may just do the one thing he has failed to do in the past with all of the talent before them:
Win an NCAA championship.
Calipari’s squad finds themselves in the Final Four after easily dispatching of the Baylor Bears, 82-70 on Sunday, leading by as much as 23 points. In fact, most of the NCAA tournament has not been all that difficult for the overall #1 seed in the field of 68 – they have won all of their tournament games by more than 10 points. And now they face off against a former Kentucky head coach in Rick Pitino – one who, himself, led the Wildcats to a national championship in 1996 – and the Louisville Cardinals, who are, themselves, no strangers to the Final Four. The Wildcats, however, are expected to steamroll the Cardinals on Saturday, and the winner of the Ohio State-Kansas matchup in the other national semifinal on Monday.
This comes as to no surprise to college basketball pundits and fans, alike, who are well aware of Calipari’s recruiting prowess. The coach’s past rosters have featured the likes of Chicago Bulls all-star PG Derrick Rose and Sacramento Kings PG Tyreke Evans. Last year’s Kentucky team featured five first-round picks in the 2010 NBA draft, including John Wall (#1 overall, Washington Wizards), DeMarcus Cousins (#5 overall, Sacramento Kings), Patrick Patterson (#14 overall, Houston Rockets), Eric Bledsoe (#18 overall, Oklahoma City Thunder), and Daniel Orton (#29 overall, Orlando Magic).
This year’s incarnation is no different. The Wildcats (currently at 36-2) boast a recently-named AP Player of the Year in freshman Anthony Davis, as well as high-level prospects Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague. All five starters are either freshmen or sophomores, and all are, if they choose, expected to be selected high in next year’s NBA draft. There have even been debates sparked about Kentucky’s talented college squad, and how they would fare against the NBA’s worst teams. On top of all that, with the relative ease to which they reached the national semifinals, Kentucky is, barring a major upset, expected to win the national championship.
This consensus prediction has prompted pundits to speak out about the nature of Calipari’s recruiting practices, and how the prospect of a Kentucky championship may very well ruin college basketball as we know it.
In an article on Grantland.com by Chuck Klosterman, it is posited that, with the almost businesslike practice of luring All-American talent, producing them as “one-and-dones”, and reloading with more blue-chippers the next year. While he admits that Calipari’s engagement in the “professionalization of college sports” isn’t new, he does think that crowning these Wildcats with a championship would only legitimize his methods – recruiting stellar “one-and-done” talents – as the only thing big programs can do to keep up. Arguably, this would give the game’s best players to a select few schools, while the rest of the country is left, essentially, with the talent pool’s table scraps:
Calipari’s scheme will become standard at a handful of universities where losing at basketball is unacceptable: North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, UCLA, and maybe even Duke. These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen, but they’ll have to go further; they’ll have to be as transparent about their motives as Calipari is (because transparency is the obsession of modernity). If they resist, they will fade.
It will skew the competitive balance of major conferences and split D-I basketball into two completely unequal tiers. Final Four games will look more and more like sloppy pro games, and national interest in college basketball will wane (even if the level of play technically increases). In 10 years, it might be a niche sport for people like me — people who can’t get over the past.
While I can understand where Klosterman is coming from, it’s a stretch to say that college basketball would eventually turn into a niche sport, due to one coach’s practices in recruiting, as revolutionary – or even damaging – as it may seem to be.
While you can say that this practice will concentrate the talent pool to a select few schools, I don’t see how this is any different from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. The only difference is that the athletes are bolting for the pros during their freshman or sophomore years, rather than their junior or senior campaigns. I may be wrong, but I don’t remember anyone lamenting the state of college basketball when Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma or Michigan’s Fab Five were prominent in the NCAA landscape.
Furthermore, the fact that Kentucky’s collection of super-froshes and sophs, as Calipari’s track record can attest in the past decade, isn’t necessarily the tried-and-true formula for an instant championship. After all, we have seen more talented teams that Calipari had managed to put together, that didn’t go all the way. For example, let’s take Calipari’s 2010 super team featuring Wall, Cousins, Patterson, Bledsoe and Orton. After going 35-3 and winning the SEC Championship, hardly anyone doubted they could run the gauntlet and win the NCAA title.
That is, until they ran into a West Virginia squad that jumped all over their inexperience on the big stage. And, not for nothing, many of their key players – including guards Da’Sean Butler and Joe Mazzula – were juniors or seniors.
The idea that Calipari’s way of winning championships will have to be adopted by a litany of other big-name schools in order to keep up doesn’t hold much water, either. After all, there is still stock in cultivating talent for more than two years in order to win national titles – some players (i.e. Tyler Hansbrough) need the seasoning of three or four years in college to become the championship-caliber talent most teams dream of. While taking blue-chip talent out of high school looks like a tantalizing “fast lane” to a championship, it is, by no means, the only way it will be done in the future – let alone a proven method to doing it.
Ultimately, if Calipari pulls off the wins – and with relative ease, no less – he will not be setting the rule. He will be setting the exception to it. And to see it as a systematic “changing of the guard” is, if nothing else, relatively short-sighted.
Good luck to the Wildcats. But don’t assume that their success will be the harbinger of doom for college basketball.