Tuesday, April 3, 2012

NCAA Title Game Reaction; In the Defense of John Calipari

Was there really any doubt?  Did anyone actually believe that Kentucky would fail to bring home the hardware this year?  Wasn’t selecting any other team to win the national championship basically just a shot at Calipari?

As Kansas stormed back in the waning moments of Monday night’s game, I wonder how many naysayers rose up from their seats, jacked up the television volume, and braced themselves for the vindicating I-told-you-he-can’t-get-it-done moment.  Kansas was about to become his New York Giants, the personification of the forces of good triumphing against the symbol of all that is wrong with college basketball. 

Except here’s the problem: Calipari hasn’t done anything wrong. 

There might not be any American sports policy that I find so superficial and useless as the one-year delay between high school and entering the NBA draft.  Do we actually believe that Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist put forth anything resembling an effort in education?  When they finish their classes, do highly touted freshmen basketball players hit the books and consider a lifetime in medicine or law?  Of course not and I don’t blame them for this at all. 
Calipari has joined the ranks of the nation's best coaches and, YES,
it was because of just one game.
People go to college to prepare themselves for their professional lives (among many other reasons), so, by that definition, top NBA prospects devoting chunks of their days to academia is sort of like me devoting chunks of my day to video games.  My future isn’t in gaming and elite college freshmen don’t have an immediate future outside of basketball.  They should be spending their time around basketball.  They should be missing classes to attend practices, tournaments, and games.  Unless you’re heading into things with a concrete plan for the future, many college freshmen don’t even take anything more than a slew of introductory or low-intermediate courses!  In other words, what do you really gain by one, half-assed year in a college learning environment?   

Certainly I am making a gross generalization, but many one-and-done college basketball players are probably only attending college because they need to.  There are definitely those who would go to college even if they could go pro straight out of high school, but these types of players are different than the day-1 superstars Calipari is often associated with hoarding (mind you some do actually decide to stick around for more than a year).  Guys like this probably need another year to prune their game to the NBA level and, if a professional career is not a no-doubt-about-it scenario, they are probably investing at least some time into an education and alternative career paths.      

Look, one year of college is better than no years of college, but not if the entire system is predicated on creating a front that basketball executive big shots care about educating the young stars.  If this were the case, they’d realize, like their football counterparts did, that one year does nothing and, in fact, two years of college still makes eventual graduation a daunting challenge. 

However, the façade they are trying to construct is actually a valuable notion.  Promising young NBA talent should have to attend college.  They should be putting themselves in a position to succeed after basketball stops becoming a part of their lives.  They should need to attend classes and not simply go through the motions.  They should be encouraged to truly explore what college has to offer beyond a stage for their athletic talents.  But if these things do not truly matter to those in charge of creating these eligibility rules, then why make these kids go at all?  Why should they be taught that pretending to care is enough?  Let them declare for the draft and start making some income that exceeds the 25-50 thousand dollars per year in scholarship money.    

So, getting back to the whole Calipari situation, as my ninth grade history teach told me after beating me in a board game, “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.”

A funny thing happens when you transition from extensive NBA watching to constant NCAA viewership before returning back to the pro game; you realize just how good every NBA player is and how the speed and strength of the game is simply out of the galaxy of the collegiate equivalent.  There’s constant motion at every position.  Anyone who gets an open look is 100% sure he will drain the shot.  Player range is on a suped-up scale and even the most modest white boy can throw down hard.  There are no Syracuse Zones or sideline traps – not because of “rules”, but because NBA players are simply too smart.  Likewise, the play-calling, slow dribbling 6’ 1’’point guard has become nearly extinct.  Pros push the rock down the court and know that if someone gets anything resembling space, they can and will execute.  You hear all about “the speed of the game” as if it’s some mystical thing you can only understand when you’re in it.  False.  Even the most un-athletic and dimwitted of sports fans can observe it from their living room.
I might rank Terrence Jones ahead of Davis and Kidd-
Gilchrist in my future pro rankings (soon to be
Finding any of the above elements on a college basketball team is a rarity and usually cannot be done if for no other reason than falling short of some sort of talent quota.  Yet, Calipari seems intent on emulating the pro game to the best of his ability, hence why so much elite high school talent see joining a Calipari program as the most direct path to NBA superstardom. 

Calipari’s style is more than just recruiting elite talent for a single year. It’s what he does with the talent that’s borderline un-collegiate and it was that exact strategy that allowed his Kentucky Wildcats to trounce through the NCAA tournament like few, if any teams, have done in recent memory.  He plays fast, aggressive, and has the talent to adopt the NBA adage: if you’re open, SHOOT IT!  Not a lot of college teams can truly abide by that. 

Kentucky put up over 80 points in each of their first four games and probably could have done so in the other two if they played more aggressively with the lead late in the game.  They scored 102 big ones in their Sweet Sixteen game against Indiana, at which point I seriously contemplated whether this is the greatest college basketball team of my lifetime.  I still can’t say it with any certainty, but I kind of think they’d beat any championship team of the last fifteen years, perhaps with the exception of Florida’s second championship team in 2007, but that is more of an experience factor than anything else. 

Calipari has been a great coach for a long time; that is non-debatable.  But, before Monday night, every person who questioned whether a laissez-faire approach to college basketball could work was perfectly in line.  Until you get that championship, even the greatest of athletic careers are lacking.  What if Dan Marino won a Super Bowl?  What if Peyton Manning didn’t? 

I always laugh when the sports maidens and talking heads say, “Don’t be ridiculous; one game does not determine someone’s career.”  While the premise of this logic is reasonable – championship games are decided by a small handful of plays, seconds, and the always-prevalent luck – this is simply the very nature of sports and competition. 

The Patriots need to change their draft strategy.  Really?  They came within four combined minutes of winning FIVE Super Bowls.  They also came within four minutes of winning 0.  Kurt Warner will probably not make the Hall of Fame (a ghastly shame in my opinion).  He has the three greatest Super Bowl games for a quarterback in terms of yardage but just one Super Bowl victory; he could easily have three.  Coach K is arguably the greatest collegiate coach of all time but was almost the victim of what would have been definitely the greatest shot of all time.   There’s “The Catch” and “The Music City Miracle” – iconic moments that came within an inch or a correct call of never happening. 
(Above picture and this discussion would not have been included if the
shot went in)
One play does define a legacy.  We praise the ones that are “great when it counts,” which can be as simple as blooping a single down the right field line in the ninth inning or flicking a ball to home plate and tagging out someone who mindbogglingly does not slide, and chastise those who have a ball slapped out of their hands in the end zone or see a would-be game winner clank off the post or rattle around the rim. 

No matter how statically or mathematically irrational it may seem, individual plays and moments, as opposed to decade long “basic” accomplishments, become the measuring sticks for careers.  Why?  Because winning is everything in sports and that simplicity is exactly why we play, watch, and invest our livelihoods in them. 

With his first National Championship in the books, Calipari has cemented himself as a legitimate innovator and college basketball guru.  Even with all his previous success, Calipari and his methods would never have become legitimate without a national title.  I’m glad he can now be placed where he belongs.  

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