March 11th, 2014 10:09 AM║ Posted By: John Pennington ║ Permalink
║ Schools: Kentucky
Tags: Elite Eight, Final Fours, NCAA, UK
If/when Kentucky stubs its toe in the NCAA Tournament, you can be sure hundreds of columnists and media types (like us) will opine that we all finally have definitive proof that John Calipari’s one-and-done system won’t work. An NIT washout in 2013 and a disappointing 2014 will be all many need to see before pronouncing judgement. And that’s because so many of us questioned Calipari’s recruiting plan from the get-go. If you doubted it in the beginning, it’ll be a heckuva lot easier to rip it after a pair of humdrum seasons.
That isn’t fair, of course. Kentucky is 22-9 and the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament. Yes, 22-9 is enough to make spoiled Wildcat fans yelp for Coach Cal’s scalp on Twitter and messageboards, but to most fans 22-9 would be a pretty good year. Especially for a team loaded down with freshmen. Any other big-time program going 22-9 with an inexperienced line-up would be described as “rebuilding” by the press. But we won’t give Calipari that kind of break.
The reality is that a flameout in the NCAA tourney won’t at all prove Calipari’s system doesn’t work. It will only prove that fielding teams made up of one-and-doners makes things more difficult for the coach himself. Each year he has to learn a new group of starters. Each year has to coax them into buying into a “team first” mentality. And each year he has to pray that one of his rookies doesn’t go down with an injury.
Since he started pushing Kentucky as an NBA stepladder, Calpari has reached an Elite Eight, two Final Fours, a national title game (which UK won), the NIT, and now another NCAA tourney. (The NIT bid came in a year in which Kentucky went 4-5 down the stretch after an injury to dominating big man Nerlens Noel.) Most coaches, schools and fans would take that five-year record and smile.
In fact, isn’t it possible that we in the media overhyped this particular Wildcat recruiting class in the first place? This was about the fourth year in a row in which America’s best-known basketball gurus declared that Kentucky had landed “The Greatest Class Of All-Time.” (Pause for trumpets, fanfare.) And if we in the press — along with rabid Big Blue fans — called it the best class ever, well, by gosh it has to be the coach’s fault he’s only gone 22-9. To hell with chemistry.
This comes from a writer and website, mind you, that has questioned Calipari’s one-and-done plan. Specifically, we wondered if fans would connect with any of these drive-thru players. In 20 years, will anyone in the Bluegrass State remember which 9-month Kentucky residents were on a Final Four team and which were on the NIT team? We believe all those faces and names will run together. (For comparison, Florida fans will have a much easier time remembering the four seniors who led them to a perfect 18-0 SEC record this year.)
We’ve also written that toughest part of recruiting NBA superstars-in-waiting will be getting them to play team-first basketball. Every blue-chipper UK signs was the brightest star on his high school team. Attitudes have to be adjusted and some are more maleable than others. Remarkably, Calipari’s first three batches of one-and-doners did yield to the team. At least well enough to reach Elite Eights and beyond.
But even though we don’t believe a revolving door approach to recruiting is the best way to build a basketball program, we can’t claim that the past two seasons prove Calipari’s system won’t work long-term. At least no more than we could have said after Calipari’s first three seasons, “Yep, this is going to be a breeze for Kentucky.”
The one-and-done approach makes things more difficult for the coach. But four NCAA tourneys in five years with an Elite Eight, two Final Fours and a national title in the books doesn’t look too darn bad from where we sit.
Besides, what’s Calipari supposed to do? Not sign star players who want to slip on a Kentucky jersey? Please. Wildcat fans would revolt.
But be ready. If/when the Cats are ousted pre-Elite Eight from the Big Dance, Calipari’s one-and-done system will come under heavy fire. Very heavy fire.
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