Editor’s note: Part 3 of our weeklong College Basketball Preview is on Kentucky’s chances. Part 1, which ran on Monday, was on North Carolina. Part 2, which ran on Tuesday, was on Duke. Check back here later this week for Ohio State and Syracuse.
As Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And when it comes to Kentucky winning the national championship this season, I see it and I know it. The last time I was this certain of the Wildcats’ fate was in the fall of 1995. Going into that season with Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, and a pre-Porcini’s Rick Pitino, I was sure UK was ready to fulfill its destiny and give me the first UK title of my lifetime. That 1996 Kentucky team had nine future NBA pros on its roster, and its demolition of opponents throughout the season was magical to watch. The Wildcats lost twice that season — once to UMass and once to Mississippi State, both of which were loaded enough to eventually make it to the Final Four. It was an exhilarating ride for a Blue-obsessed teenager, made even more special by the knowledge from the beginning of the inevitability of our final destination.
Sixteen years later, this Kentucky team is headed for a similar date with destiny. Just as the 1996 group had a coach considered to be among the game’s best but without the national championship to confirm it, the 2011-12 version has John Calipari desperately yearning to finally have his face close the “One Shining Moment” montage. The roster is once again loaded with talent, as Calipari has stacked the deck with seven future pros and five potential NBA lottery picks. Early performances have showcased a team whose length and athleticism cannot be matched by any team outside of Chapel Hill. This is the year Kentucky hangs banner no. 8, and no treatise on the emergence of Kendall Marshall or the majestic beauty of Austin Rivers can sway me from that conclusion.
But chances are that you don’t place the same trust in my gut instinct and are less certain of an ultra-awkward Calipari-Mark Emmert congratulatory handshake in New Orleans this April. You recognize that this has the potential to be an epic year in college basketball across the board, and that Kentucky might not be as special as I know it will be. Based in part on the uncertainty of the NBA lockout, more superstars returned to college this season than in any since the onset of the one-and-done era. Stars such as Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Perry, and Terrence Jones have returned to combine with freshman studs such as Austin Rivers, Andre Drummond, and Anthony Davis to ensure that the talent level in college basketball will be its highest in more than a decade. There won’t be the powerhouse teams that college basketball was accustomed to in the 1970s and ’80s, but this year’s Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio State teams have the potential to be as close as we can get under the current system. In such a season, you need more than simply my inner certainty to crown Kentucky king. So to appease your desire for rational argument, I give you the three rock-solid reasons our championship is destined to be:
1. It’s Calipari’s Time
By any objective standard, John Calipari is one of the five best coaches in college basketball. His résumé is close to the top of the current heap. Calipari has taken over three different programs in various states of disrepair and led them each to a Final Four (yes, I count the two vacated Final Fours at UMass and Memphis. To paraphrase the great Kentuckian Muhammad Ali, I ain’t got no quarrel with Marcus Camby or Derrick Rose), one of only two coaches to accomplish that feat. He holds the record for most wins by a coach in a three-year period, and his 509 total wins are second only to Roy Williams for the most in the first 19 years of a coach’s career. He is the overwhelming choice for the best recruiter in college basketball, and has brought in three consecutive no. 1 recruiting classes to Kentucky, producing 11 pros in the past three NBA drafts.
But something is missing. Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, and Rick Pitino all have championships. Calipari does not. While, publicly, Calipari makes claims that his focus is solely on running a “Players First” program that, according to Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, “creates more millionaires than a Wall Street firm,” the lack of a national championship eats at him. He knows that he is as good as or better than others in the coaching elite and that his résumé should certainly be considered greater than that of lesser coaches with national titles, like Bill Self, Billy Donovan, and Tubby Smith. But, for most in college basketball, Calipari won’t be elite until he wins a title. At this moment, he resides at the head of the “best coach without a title” table, joined by the likes of Eddie Sutton, John Chaney, Lefty Driesell, and Bob Huggins.
In that way, Calipari is a victim of the randomness of college basketball. The NBA, MLB, and the NHL each mitigate variance by placing their series in a best-of-seven format.
College basketball is different. The margin between ultimate success and failure can come down to a poor-shooting half or Mario Chalmers having his one shining moment for eternity. If John Wall and Eric Bledsoe don’t go ice-cold against West Virginia in
20092010, or the 2008-09 Memphis team makes a late free throw, is John Calipari a better coach? The answer is of course not, but in a results-driven world, those moments keep him from his place among the coaching elite.
This is the season, however, when the randomness turns in Calipari’s favor. After watching five potential national championship-worthy teams fall late in the Big Dance, this is the year that the numbers even out and Calipari comes out on the right side of the NCAA random wheel. His sixth legitimate shot at a title will see him finally realize ultimate glory, not just because it will be his best of the bunch, but because he is due. As a program builder, coach, and marketer, Calipari fits in better with the Coach K/Williams/Pitino group than he does the Sutton/Chaney/Driesell bunch. This is the year he gets his official invite.
2. Loading Up With Elite Talent Works
Kentucky welcomes its best recruiting class in school history. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer are all McDonald’s All-Americans. Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Teague were each ranked among the top five players in the country. Collectively, they represent potentially the best test yet for Calipari’s philosophy that the way to success is to simply get the best players. If the best players are coached correctly and allowed to flourish individually in a free-flowing system, the team with lesser players will be dominated by talent and athleticism. It is an NBA star-system mentality that Calipari has imported into the one-and-done era, flying in the face of the sacred team-first mentality of college basketball. Purists of the game (a.k.a. people who love players who smack the floor on defense and sprint to the sideline to be berated by a coach making millions) argue that this is not a successful recipe for a national title, and that simply assembling masses of talent does not work in the college game. They contend that the only way to win a championship is to build a “program” via “leadership” found from upperclassmen not good enough to be desired by teams in the NBA draft and who return to school to chase championship glory. In this view, talent succumbs to teamwork as the “molders of men” on the sideline work their individual magic.
This, of course, is all nostalgic jabberwocky. In what other realm besides college basketball would anyone legitimately argue that the best method to success is not to assemble the best talent for your enterprise? The reality is that even in college basketball, superior talent usually wins out, and that level of talent is not destined for long periods of free labor on a college campus. By my count, four teams have attempted to win a national championship by recruiting and playing three elite freshmen (defined by players ranked in the top 15 by a scouting service) among their top six rotation players. The 2009 Kentucky team lost in the Elite Eight, the 2010 Kentucky team fell in the Final Four, and the 1992 Michigan and 2007 Ohio State teams both fell in the NCAA title game. After four attempts at building a championship run around elite freshman talent, the worst finish is a no. 1 overall seed and a loss in the Elite Eight. I will take those odds. Combine that with the fact that two other national champions (2003 Syracuse and 2011 UConn) had teams with three of their top six rotation players in the freshman class — even if not all were considered elite — and it is clear that the idea that freshman-centric teams cannot win is a myth.
As good as those previous test models may have been, this 2012 Kentucky group might actually be better. Anthony Davis is a 6-foot-11 freak of nature whose odd growth pattern turned him into a potential no. 1 NBA draft pick almost overnight. Davis was a midlevel 6-3 point guard in Chicago who went into his junior year of high school desperate to improve enough to hopefully get an offer from a local Big Ten program. Then, over the course of six months, he grew eight inches. He retained his point guard skills, but when placed into the body of a center, those same skills render him nearly unguardable. Kidd-Gilchrist is a 6-7 forward with leaping ability whose rock star status is about to be sealed with the debut of an HBO documentary on his high school team next month. Marquis Teague is the latest in the long line of John Calipari NBA point guards, who should overcome his suspect shooting ability with a quick first step that will make him impossible to guard off the dribble. And Kyle Wiltjer, the least heralded of the group, is a 6-9 power forward who is the best 3-point shooter on the roster, with “grittiness” and “great intangibles” so prevalent that Dick Vitale will be forgiven if he happens to assume Wiltjer plays for Duke.
Add to that mix a roster that includes what qualifies as “veterans” in Calipari’s system — preseason All-American candidate Terrence Jones and high-scorer Doron Lamb — and John Calipari has six surefire future NBA draft picks with a combined 78 games of college experience in his seven-man rotation. The final member is senior Darius Miller, an old man who also happened to be last season’s SEC tournament MVP.
This is the best group of talent John Calipari has ever assembled, and unlike the other top contenders (North Carolina, Ohio State, and UConn), it has virtually no experience together. But, as was said before, more often than not, well-coached superior talent wins games, and this season no one in America has more talent than Kentucky.
3. UK Fans Deserve It
In Kentucky, we care more about basketball than you do. In fact, we care more about basketball than you probably care about anything. No program’s fans in America are more committed, passionate, or crazy than those of the Big Blue Nation. In college basketball, only three programs consistently matter: North Carolina, Duke, and Kentucky. The two Triangle schools have the unfortunate burden of being located where the citizenry has the most college degrees per capita in the nation. We in Kentucky don’t have that distraction. North Carolina’s wine-and-cheese crowd (as Sam Cassell so aptly termed them) has the Panthers, the Hurricanes, NASCAR, and the best college town in America to divert their attention, while Duke’s nerdy, elitist-chic student body is too focused on entering our nation’s top tax bracket to truly replicate our obsession with one college basketball team. I don’t care what ESPN, its announcers, or HBO documentarians try to tell you we care more than they do, and it isn’t even close.
I went to grad school at Duke and lived in Chapel Hill, expecting that my neighbors would share my passion for the greatest sport in the land. I was wrong. North Carolina and Duke fans care in the moment, but they don’t live and breathe basketball 24/7, 365 days a year like we do. Triangle fans don’t camp out for three days simply to attend a glorified practice (Krzyzewskiville is extremely overrated), don’t wear jean shorts throughout basketball season in honor of a onetime benchwarmer’s nickname, and don’t watch Cougar Town simply because one of the stars is a fellow fan. We don’t just like our team, we obsess over it constantly. Ask any college basketball writer what happens when the masses go on alert after a critical column or the occurrence of even a small factual error in a piece on the Cats. In the new-age world of Twitter, with our ability to communicate with journalists, antagonizing the Big Blue Nation is not for the faint of heart, and to do so can put one in great nerd-fight peril.
We do this because Kentucky basketball simply means more to us. We have no professional team in our state. The primary reason you even know we exist is because of one horse race and fried chicken. The Wildcats are what we rely on not only for entertainment, but also for our state’s collective self-esteem. So if there is any karma or justice in the world, it is our turn to win. Our last national championship was in 1998. Since our last shining moment, Duke and North Carolina each have found a way to win two titles of their own. Kansas, Syracuse, and Michigan State each have added a ring, Johnny-come-lately UConn has had the audacity to somehow finagle three trophies, and even Florida, which barely knows it even has a basketball team, has won two.
Those who care most should be rewarded, and we are long overdue. This is the year the waiting ends. Kentucky wins no. 8. I just know it.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the Supreme Court justice who said “I know it when I see it,” regarding pornography. It said Lewis F. Powell, but in fact the quote comes from Justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. The article also misquoted Stewart. Both errors have been corrected.
Matt Jones comes to us from Kentucky Sports Radio. He also hosts a television and radio show about Kentucky basketball.
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