Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I declare that John Calipari and Kentucky have been falsely accused and unfairly maligned. Mr. Calipari and the Wildcats have conducted themselves with honor and followed the rules in their three seasons together. Charges that they’re ruining college basketball and making a mockery of education are without merit and should be dropped immediately.
Please allow me to explain.
First of all, the events that transpired under Mr. Calipari’s watch at Massachusetts and Memphis are irrelevant and inadmissible. Yes, UMass star Marcus Camby accepted about $28,000 from sports agents, which forced the school to vacate its 1996 Final Four season. And yes, the NCAA ruled that Memphis star Derrick Rose committed academic fraud, which forced the school to vacate its 2008 Final Four season.
But let the record show that the NCAA exonerated Mr. Calipari of wrongdoing in both instances. And neither school faced a postseason ban or loss of scholarships. Implying that the coach is tainted, nonetheless, is the worst form of guilt by association.
While there is no defense against such whisper campaigns, they have no bearing on the subject at hand, the Kentucky Wildcats.
Kentucky is in the Final Four for the second consecutive year, after reaching the Elite Eight in 2010. The Wildcats, overwhelming favorites to win the national championship, already have won another title by a landslide:
They’re the nation’s most-despised team, hounded by a chorus in the media and general public rooting for their downfall.
That isn’t so unusual in sports. The Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Duke Blue Devils engender much resentment and revulsion among non-fans. But those teams also have huge national followings, whereas residents, alumni and the players’ families appear to be the only folks in Kentucky’s corner.
Unfortunately, the animosity toward Mr. Calipari and his players is based on a system that’s beyond their control. They can’t change the establishment and they shouldn’t be blamed for maximizing it. Kentucky simply draws the top blue-chip players, many of whom simply leave for the NBA as soon as possible.
That’s the “crime” in this case, striving to land the nation’s best scholastic talent, which often strives to play with the nation’s best, period.
Mr. Calipari and his Wildcats have been successful at their respective goals, but that doesn’t mean they’re destroying college basketball. Furthermore, their obligations are to Kentucky and themselves, not Division I’s 343 other schools and 4,100 other players.
As the coach wrote on his blog, “Every kid is on a different timetable, and when I coach young people, it’s not about me. It’s about them.” He’s a consistent, outspoken opponent of the one-and-done rule, but “if that rule doesn’t change, my only two options are recruiting players that aren’t good enough or convincing young people to put their dreams aside because the university and our basketball program are more important than their dreams.”
He’ll likely win his first championship this season, but there’s nothing easy about doing it his way. Relying almost exclusively on uber-talented freshmen and sophomores doesn’t guarantee success. They have to blend in, work hard and play unselfishly, putting aside their personal goals at the next level.
Managing and massaging that many elite players is more trouble than many coaches prefer. As Maryland coach Mark Turgeon testified in November, “I’m not afraid of one-and-dones … I just don’t want six of them.”