Thursday, April 5, 2012

Not the Death of College Basketball, Just Business as Usual

No matter what anyone says, Calipari deserves this
You might have noticed my relative silence on the blog as of late, having done absolutely no writing in over a week. Considering the events of the past week (ie. Kentucky winning the national championship), this might strike you as odd. After all, how could the world’s most insane Kentucky fan NOT flood his sports blog with recklessly written and insanely biased content during the most glorious run of his sports life? Well, there are several reasons, in fact:

1. Everything would have been recklessly written and insanely biased. More so than usual, even. And really, how many times do non-UK fans need to hear about Kentucky’s overwhelming talent, unselfishness, etc.? (Note: I could seriously read about it all day. All. Day.

2. I maintained a tournament long stance of not analyzing or predicting any UK games. I did this not because I thought they would lose a game, but because I was terrified to jinx them. And before you dismiss that as some sort of stupid joke, keep in mind that I am the most illogically superstitious sports fan in the entire world. Some of my rituals during this tournament included:
 -- NEVER wearing my UK hat during games, but positioning it in very specific spots. Top right corner of the coffee table (facing me) when watching upstairs, and far corner of the futon (facing TV) when watching downstairs.

-- While watching the IU and Louisville games upstairs, I developed very specific sitting/standing routines. And yes, I strongly believe that my in-game adjustment to sitting is what caused UK to shore up the rebounding against Louisville.

-- When watching downstairs, I always, ALWAYS, had to sit in my computer chair.

The last time I broke ritual was two seasons ago when I decided to wear my #21 Tayshaun Prince Kentucky jersey during a tournament game. That ended with John Wall and Co. bowing out in the Elite Eight to a fairly crappy West Virginia team. Maybe the worst night of my life. So yeah, I follow these rituals pretty stringently. And yes, I know there is something wrong with me.

3. Even if I didn’t have any superstitions, it would have been pointless for me to attempt to write anything because I was a nervous wreck for the better part of three weeks. And when I say “nervous wreck,” I mean I was literally shaking uncontrollably prior to both the Indiana game and the Louisville game.

4. Would you really have wanted me to post a thousand repetitions of “KENTUCKY WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP!!!!!!?” Because that’s pretty much all I would have been able to come up with after Monday.

Thankfully, I’ve come down off my championship high enough to put together a few coherent thoughts together.


Even as Kentucky was cutting down the nets on Monday night, there were two prevailing themes that had already taken hold and gripped both the sports media and college basketball fans across the country. One, the awe and admiration of both the talent and unselfishness of this Kentucky team. The other, the long term consequences of a Kentucky triumph.

As to the first theme, there is no doubt that this SHOULD be the first and foremost thing on people’s minds when discussing this past college basketball season. Make no mistake, this team will go down as one of the greatest teams in modern college basketball history, and they deserve every accolade they receive. Even the Ohio State fans I typically encounter, usually emboldened by some perverse sense of supreme confidence; even they were openly terrified at the prospect of facing Kentucky in the championship game. The last team I can recall with that type of cachet was the Jay Williams/Shane Battier/Mike Dunleavy/Carlos Boozer Duke team from about a decade ago, and even then I’m not sure the comparison is totally valid. Suffice it to say that Kentucky was really, REALLY good, and I feel certain that I’ll someday bore my children to tears with tales of Anthony Davis’ glorious uni-brow.

The other theme, however, is much more troublesome, and the angles of it more transparent than the purest crystal. It speaks of bias, it speaks of envy, it speaks of ignorance, and, quite honestly, it speaks of stupidity.

Last week, Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman wrote a column arguing that a Kentucky championship would hasten the death of college basketball as we know it. He claims that Calipari’s failure to win a championship with his perpetual crop of one-and-dones has forestalled a time when other top tier programs employ a similar strategy, and that Calipari’s success will effectively kill any remaining notion of amateurism. This is an interesting take, to be sure, and one that was quickly picked up and parroted by many in the days leading up to the Final Four. Thing is, interesting doesn’t always equal smart, and the massive amount of fallacies contained in this hypothesis clearly mark it as anything but smart.

Fallacy #1 – Amateurism in college basketball is a recent casualty

The notion that John Calipari is somehow the first person in history to “professionalize” college athletics is so ludicrous that it’s barely worth mentioning. Big time college coaches have been giving the “we’ll get you ready for the NBA” pitch for quite some time now, and Calipari isn’t doing anything that Roy Williams or Bill Self don’t also do.

Fallacy #2 – Pitching a recruit on preparing him for his future profession is against collegiate ideals

So, it’s wrong for John Calipari to tell Anthony Davis that he’ll be a better pro if he comes to Kentucky, but it’s OK for Harvard to tell a prospective law student that he/she will be a better lawyer if they come to Harvard? OK, that makes sense…

Fallacy #3 – One-and-dones are shady

You may not like the rule, and neither do I, but it’s the rule. Not on the fringes of the rules, it is well within the rules. I can’t emphasize that enough. Anybody who infers that John Calipari is bending the rules in any way shape or form by recruiting these guys deserves to get punched in the face.

Fallacy #4 – One-and-dones have never been successful

The entire premise of Klosterman’s column hinges on this idea. Without perpetual failure, there would be no reason to think an initial success would cause a cataclysmic change in the culture of college basketball. Problem is, there has been success. Carmelo Anthony, one of the most high profile one-and-dones ever, led Syracuse to a championship nearly a decade ago. There have been other successes as well. The Greg Oden/Mike Conley/Daequan Cook trio led Ohio State to the championship game, Derrick Rose led Memphis to the championship game, Kevin Love led UCLA to the Final Four, and Brandon Knight led Kentucky to the Final Four. The potential impact of these types of players is most certainly not lost on college coaches, even if people want to pretend like it never works out.

Fallacy #5 – Only Calipari has utilized this “strategy”

If you’re a college basketball nerd like me, then you are well aware of the recruiting battles that go on for these types of players. It’s not as if John Calipari is the only guy recruiting them – on the contrary, the list of schools associated with these players is almost always littered with the usual collection of top tier programs. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, and a whole host of other big names annually throw their hats in the ring for the Anthony Davis’ of the world, and you might be surprised to hear Calipari isn’t the only guy to reel them in on a regular basis. In fact, Calipari has only received commitments from 6 of the 42 one-and-done players since 2006, not counting this year since we don’t know everyone coming out. Thad Matta has received 5, Rick Barnes 4, and Paul Hewitt 3. Also, there have been four non-Calipari teams to enter a season with multiple one-and-done players. So no, it’s not like Calipari is blazing a trail here. Besides, if you boil down the one-and-done “strategy” to its simplest terms, it’s basically the strategy of landing as many really good players as you can. I’m gonna say that’s been tried before.

Fallacy #6 – Anybody at a top tier program can start landing these guys on a whim

No. Just no. Recruiting just doesn’t work that way.

Fallacy #7 – There’s enough of these types of players to create a hopelessly top heavy NCAA

Klosterman actually says the opposite of this when he notes that “There aren’t enough good players in America for that to happen.” He’s right, there aren’t. Unfortunately, he puts a number on approximately how many there are, saying that a handful of schools will share the top 25 best players in the country. Any small amount of research would have made him rethink this statement. Fortunately, I went ahead and did some. Of the 42 one-and-done players since 2006 (again, not counting this year), 30 were top ten recruits, as per the Rivals150 rankings. That’s an overwhelming percentage that decidedly shows that if you want to get one-and-dones, then you need to be recruiting exclusively in the top ten. Ten players to spread around to North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, Arizona, UCLA, Indiana, Kansas, Texas, etc.? I don’t think so.  Furthermore, if I were to post a list of all the one-and-dones (which I may do eventually), you’d see that the majority of them had little to no impact in the college game. Even teams that landed multiple one-and-dones, like Georgia Tech with Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton, and Kansas St. with Michael Beasley and Bill Walker; well, they accomplished very little.

What Calipari has been able to accomplish thus far at Kentucky is the exception, not the (new) rule. Not only has he been able to consistently beat out staunch competition to land big time recruits, but he’s successfully targeted the right recruits, guys who are ready to dominate from day one, and who buy into the bigger team concept. Contrary to what Chuck Klosterman claims, Calipari is not blazing a trail with his recruitment of one-and-done players, he’s simply done more with the ones he’s had, which in turn has caused more of them to come. College basketball did not die on Monday night. Nothing has changed. Business will go on as usual.

To be fair to Klosterman, I greatly enjoy his work and he clearly is a much, MUCH smarter man than I could ever hope to be. And while I don’t agree at all with what he had to say, I do respect that his thoughts are completely genuine and contain no subtext or not-so-hidden agendas against either Kentucky or John Calipari. For nearly everyone else though, that’s what this “crisis” has been all about. It’s not about people’s romanticized ideals of the “student-athlete” being flushed down the toilet. That, I could at least sympathize with, even if it’s completely outlandish to pretend it’s still 1970. It’s not even about the one-and-done’s, and the general distaste that goes along with them (though for Klosterman, I think it genuinely is). No, this about WHO is winning. This is about John Calipari, a man reviled by nearly everyone outside the state of Kentucky, climbing the mountaintop as the most powerful man in the game. And if you don’t believe that, then you’re only deluding yourself.

How do I know this is true? Well, show me the dozens of columns from 2007 decrying the end of college basketball as we know it. Show them to me. Certainly, with an Ohio State team consisting of three one-and-dones (ironically, likely the same number as Kentucky had this year) going all the way to the championship game, SOMEBODY must have flipped out! So, where are they? Where are all the columns? That’s right, they don’t exist. Neither do the columns lambasting Coach K for having two straight one-and-done point guards…though those columns were all over the place after Calipari followed Derrick Rose with Tyreke Evans.

Look, I’m not going to tell you how to feel about John Calipari. I’ve long been a supporter of his, well before he came to Kentucky, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the NCAA did not implicate him in either the Marcus Camby situation or the Derrick Rose situation. In fact, Calipari received a letter from Thomas Yeager, chair of the NCAA Infractions Committee, back in 2004 stating, “There is no doubt that you were unaware of the violations involving student-athlete Camby. In a sense, you were an ‘innocent victim’ in this.” I also find it incredibly ironic that Calipari is demonized by supporters of the student-athlete ideal despite the fact that Kentucky is tied with Vanderbilt for the highest Academic Progress Rate in the SEC.

While those facts mean something to me, they most certainly will be meaningless to you if you’ve already decided you hate John Calipari. That’s fine. There are tons of sports figures I hate illogically, so I get that sentiment. The point isn’t to defend Calipari, it’s to point out the truth.

When people tell you that Kentucky winning the national championship is harmful to college basketball, what they’re really saying is that they hate John Calipari. When they tell you that other top schools are going to magically join the one-and-done fray, what they’re really saying is that other coaches are going to be as shady as Calipari (though it’s important to note that Cal has NEVER been touched with a recruiting violation). When they say that winning with one-and-dones is a shady/cheap way to win, what they really mean is they’re jealous of Kentucky’s talent.

Really, how else can you look at it? The “Kentucky’s championship is bad for college basketball” argument was the easiest thing in the world to pick apart. No logical person with half a brain would buy that for even a second! So, why do we have to keep hearing about it? And why is Calipari constantly viewed as “shady” for landing one-and-done players when nobody thinks twice about Thad Matta netting nearly as many?

I’ll say it again, college basketball did not die on Monday night, no matter what Chuck Klosterman or anybody thinks. The subtext of this narrative is clear for everyone to see; we hate John Calipari and we’re mad that he’s killing everyone else right now. Fact is, there is nothing wrong with how Kentucky won this year. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were available for any school in America to recruit, and they chose to come play for Kentucky. That’s not shady. That’s college basketball, just as it has always been.


  1. Very well done. Congrats on your championship. A team that demonstrates and a man who promotes unselfishness on the court should be respected, not hated. A man who actually advises young men to do what seems to be in their personal best interest, not just the selfish best interest of his program (i.e. advising them to go into the NBA if he thinks that's better for them, as opposed to lying to try to them in hopes they'll stay on his team) should be commended.

  2. Totally agree. There's so much about Calipari that should be appealing to people, but nobody is willing to even consider that he might be anything other than a dirty cheat.