Kentucky Is the Only Team That MattersCharles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images
Embrace Kentucky. Stop fighting it. We’re on the brink of another NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are 34-0, and they’re chasing the first perfect season since 1976. It’s time to get serious about this.
You can go two directions here. You can complain about the new college basketball superpower and the rise of an all-star team at a school that already had every advantage in the world. You can lament what it has done to the sport you once loved. You can root for Kentucky to fail.
Or you can jump onboard with what’s happening and savor the absurdity. Don’t just tolerate this team. Love this team. Enjoy every John Calipari interview in which he ignores the question and turns it into one long recruiting pitch. Enjoy the 7-footers coming off the bench like Voltron, and enjoy Karl-Anthony Towns using March to obliterate any doubt about who should be the no. 1 NBA draft pick in June. Enjoy the games that look close for five minutes and then become a natural disaster that leaves everyone at home praying for survivors.
I understand why some people might not love Kentucky. If you’re a fan of a team with a real shot at a national title, obviously that makes this entire conversation moot. This is for everybody else.
Instead of explaining why you should love this team, let’s try this a different way. Let’s unpack all the reasons you wouldn’t love Kentucky.
1. “It’s impossible to root for John Calipari.”
Lots of people have a visceral reaction to his persona, and that’s more than enough to push them away from Kentucky. It’s true, Calipari is like a cartoon caricature of a college basketball coach. The key to getting past this is to appreciate the absurdity to the fullest. Don’t hate him because he’s the most shameless salesman you’ve ever seen; love him because recruiting is its own art form, and we are looking at Da Vinci.
The man has no off switch. He even recruited a 14-year-old Chris Ryan. He is pudgy and sweaty and ridiculous, but in a way that’s both entertaining and endearing. He’s like basketball Bill Clinton.
He’s also a much smarter basketball mind than he gets credit for being. Ever since he was at UMass, there have been skeptics who’ve claimed he can’t coach. They obviously don’t watch the games. The degree of difficulty he works under — bringing in raw superstars, each with his own goals and priorities, and turning them into a team — is higher than any coach in the country. And he pulls it off almost every year. Go back and read this grouchy column from last March, and remember that Kentucky turned around and went to the NCAA championship game.
Also: Anyone who’s made an enemy of both Dan Shaughnessy and the NCAA has to be doing something right.
Also: This can’t be proven, but in my mind Calipari starts every season by gathering doe-eyed 18-year-olds in a conference room and giving this exact speech.
2. “John Calipari doesn’t play by the rules.”
This argument is so easily debunked, we don’t even need to bother. If you want to talk about violations … His greatest documented sins are (1) allowing Marcus Camby to get paid on a Final Four team that made UMass millions of dollars, and (2) helping Derrick Rose get into college. Whatever Calipari has done in the past, it’s not like we’re talking about Bernie Madoff here. Most importantly, it’s 2015. Would anyone below the age of 60 put on a cape and go out for vigilante justice on behalf of the NCAA?
Come on. Take the cape off. You look ridiculous.
3. “One-and-dones are ruining college basketball.”
Obviously, when anyone complains about one-and-dones, nothing personifies it better than the program that turns over half of its stars every year. But this isn’t really Kentucky’s fault.
It’s the NBA that takes the best young players from college basketball every year. Often they leave before even scraping their full potential. Even the freshmen who are good are usually a little too raw to carry teams on their own. Look at the difference between Andrew Wiggins last year at Kansas and what he’s doing now with the Timberwolves. That’s the kind of player college basketball loses every year.
Instead of being a lovable underdog, Virginia is a top-five team all year, because there’s just not that much dominant talent. The pipe dream solution to this problem would be for Adam Silver and Michele Roberts to raise the NBA age limit to 20, but only on the condition that the NCAA allows players to sign endorsement deals while they’re in college. There’s like a 1 percent chance that ever happens.
In the meantime, Calipari has created the only model that makes sense. He makes one-and-done entertaining. Instead of watching freshmen be overwhelmed and edged out on veteran teams, he pools several great freshmen together so they can overcome their weaknesses as a team. Some players even stay an extra year or two, and that only makes things more cohesive.
It’s the most logical way of fielding a powerhouse team in 2015. If you need more proof, don’t look at Kentucky. Look at the way Mike Krzyzewski has reinvented Duke over the past four years. Instead of being a bastion of fundamentals, values, and development in a sea of One-and-Done Calipari AAU Evil, Duke basketball now looks exactly like … Kentucky.
4. “But Kentucky fans are psychotic hill people.”
This is a fact. Even Kentucky fans will tell you that Kentucky fans are completely unhinged. Remember the fan who tattooed “2014 Nati9nal Champions” on himself before the NCAA tournament? It’s not even the tattoo that’s important there. Replacing the ‘o’ with a ‘9’ is the special twist you only find with the craziest fan bases. These are the type of people who attach their identity to championships that were won before they were born. Once you’re bragging about titles from 1948, you’re off the reservation.
Remember, this guy got the tattoo before the tournament even started. Of course Kentucky fans are people you’d want to keep at arm’s length.
The key is to remember the rest of college basketball fandom. Are the tank-topped über-bros from Arizona better? What about the million-man army of investment bankers cheering for Duke? Georgetown, where a thousand kids in khakis are ready to assault someone for an internship on the Hill? Wisconsin fans are objectively great, but they have football and hockey, too. And they go to school in Madison — the best college town in America. They don’t need your support.
Kentucky is the fan base that takes all the batshit energy of SEC football and injects it into basketball. There’s no way that can be considered a bad thing. They are like the Cameron Crazies, except instead of acting drunk, Kentucky fans are actually very drunk. Plus, Ashley Judd. She balances out the hairy-leg tattoos.
5. “This is college basketball. Underdogs are more fun.”
OK. This is a fair argument. Underdogs are definitely more fun in any sport, and that goes double for college basketball and the NCAA tournament. But can you imagine what a bummer the rest of the tournament would be if Maryland took down Kentucky in the Sweet 16? The rest of college basketball is brutal this year.
Listen to the New York Times:
… in many ways, Division I men’s basketball has never been less appealing. Scoring is down, as teams averaged 67.6 points a game through February, according to the N.C.A.A. If that average holds through the end of the tournament, it will be the second-lowest number since 1952 and part of a trend in which scoring has generally fallen from a peak of 76.7 points in 1990-91.
The game is also as slow as it has ever been. Teams are averaging fewer than 65 possessions per 40 minutes, according to the statistics site KenPom.com. That is easily the lowest since 2002, and probably the lowest since at least the 1940s.
No offense, but I’d rather watch a team full of great players than teams like Louisville and Virginia duke it out in the mid-60s.
Upsets absolutely make the NCAA tournament more fun, but there’s a delicate balance. The deeper we get into the tournament, the more important it is to have great players and great teams. It’s true in any sport. Would anyone have rather seen a Panthers-Bengals Super Bowl this year? This is the UConn-Butler rule: Feel-good stories are great until we’re watching the ugliest championship game we’ve ever seen.
6. “The Harrison twins are obnoxious.”
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Yes. Absolutely. They are overrated and overconfident at the same time, and playing for Kentucky only makes it worse. It’s like if the Winklevoss brothers played for the Lakers.
The Harrison twins also took an unimaginable amount of criticism when Kentucky was struggling last year, and they weathered the storm to lead one of the more memorable tournament runs this century. But still. I’m not going to ask anyone to root for the Harrison twins. They are the perfect villains if you’re looking to hate this team.
But you know who balances out the Harrison twins?
Karl-Anthony Towns is photobombing Calipari while Cal worries about his player’s maturity. Willie Cauley-Stein showed up to last year’s Final Four wearing the curtains from Carribbean Motel. The Dash Brothers.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
7. “Kentucky is like the Yankees of college basketball.”
Look, I understand why it may feel dirty to jump on the bandwagon of one of the most successful programs in history, but just relax. You don’t have to get a “Nati9nal Champions” tattoo. Just ride this undefeated season, and root for it to get as ridiculous as possible.
Also, just for the record: Duke will always be the Yankees of college basketball. It doesn’t matter how cool Duke’s players ever become. It doesn’t matter that Coach K is using Team USA to make himself more likable. It’s the fans. It’s always been the fans. That Christian Laettner documentary was a perfect example. What kind of person could ever cheer for that Duke team over the Fab Five? Is that someone you would ever want to be friends with?
Even now, if I’m talking to someone at a party and I find out he’s a Duke fan, there’s a 60 percent chance I will walk away from that conversation disgusted, usually for reasons that have nothing to do with college basketball. Duke has the most douches per capita of any fan base in sports, and that includes the Yankees, the Lakers, the Heat the past few years, and the Cowboys. Nobody can touch Duke. Compared to that, Kentucky is just a good team that has always been good. Like Alabama football. Not necessarily lovable, but definitely not Duke.
8. “Adolph Rupp was an asshole.”
No argument here!
Remember Charlie Pierce’s touching obituary to Dean Smith and all of Smith’s activism on behalf of his black players? Let’s just say you could write a very different version for Adolph Rupp. Some legends age better than others. But hating this program because of Rupp really misses the point.
Nobody would’ve hated what Kentucky has become more than Rupp himself.
Definitely a point in Kentucky’s favor.
9. “Everyone is writing articles telling me to like this team, and it’s so unbearable, and it’s only beginning. God, I hope they lose.”
This is the most convincing argument for rooting against Kentucky. It’s why I was wary of writing this article at all. The #SlatePitch — “Kentucky is a team of 25 All-Americans, but it is the true people’s champ” — has become the real pitch in 2015. It’s all getting a little over the top, and it’s not like you should feel guilty if you can’t play along. Rooting for Kentucky is like rooting for the shark in Jaws.
It’s fine if you can’t make that leap.
It’s just not as fun …
10. “It’s more fun to hate Kentucky.”
This seems like it would be true, but look at the bigger picture.
There have been lots of good college basketball teams — like those goddamn Laettner teams — but there have only been a few that changed the way people thought about college basketball. Those Duke teams were just very good at winning. UNLV and Michigan were different. They ushered in an attitude and style of basketball that the college game had never seen, and it changed the culture of an entire sport.
Calipari’s Kentucky teams are in that category.
You will remember these teams long after Wisconsin’s and Villanova’s rosters have graduated. College basketball used to belong to coaches who would mold stars to fit their system. Calipari molded his system to fit stars. The best players in America come to college to go to the NBA, and Kentucky prepares them better than anywhere else. But it’s bigger than that, because it’s not just happening at Kentucky anymore. It happens at Kansas. It’s happening at Arizona. It even happens at Duke now.
Without Kentucky, is there any way Coach K announces that Jahlil Okafor is a one-and-done player in November? That’s the same coach who lectured William Avery’s mom that her son was “going to fuck my program” if he left early for the NBA.
Calipari hasn’t just instituted a system that’s mutually beneficial for his players and his school, he’s done it so successfully that it has become the paradigm for most of college basketball. His system is literally undefeated this season. And after the past few years, college basketball will never look the same again.
So yeah, you can force yourself to try to enjoy Virginia or Wisconsin. You can go with a watered-down version of Kentucky and cheer for Arizona or Duke. But what’s the point? Do you really want to be one of those people who hated the Fab Five?
Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be the no. 1 pick in the draft, Willie Cauley-Stein is the best defender in the country, Devin Booker is there to drain 3s, and the Harrison twins are so frustrating that you’ll eventually learn to love them. Together, they’ve all been unstoppable for the past three months, and now they have a chance to make history in the next three weeks.
If college basketball is being destroyed by Kentucky, don’t mourn the end. Just sit back and enjoy the destruction.
Filed Under: 2015 NCAA Tournament, Andrew Sharp, john calipari, Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron Harrison, Mike Krzyzewski, Duke, Michigan, Fab Five, Christian Laettner, Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, UMass, Derrick Rose