Kentucky the greatest basketball program in America according to MSNBC's Beyond the Arc

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SevenRings has linked this story below in the FanShots, and I knew it was coming and read about it last night, but I wanted to wait until this morning to add my comments.

It is axiomatic among Kentucky fans that UK is the greatest basketball program of all time, but that is a partisan evaluation -- sure, Kentucky folks try to be objective, but it's hard to do.  North Carolina certainly has a strong argument, as does UCLA by virtue of 11 national championships.  Kansas certainly has a claim, as the game was invented in at Springfield College by Dr. James Naismith, who then brought the game to the University of Kansas and started the first basketball program in 1898.

Mike Miller, the blogger at MSNBC's Beyond the Arc blog, has been listing the top 25 basketball programs in the nation since April 15th of this year when he announced the series, and began in earnest on April 22nd with North Carolina State.  I encourage all of you to read his work from back to front, because Mike has put a lot of thought and effort into every one of his program examinations, and while we may not all agree with his conclusions, he has done a fine and impressive job of evaluating each program.  Finally, he reached the end of his road yesterday naming the University of Kentucky as the greatest program in America.

But this post is primarily about his evaluation of Kentucky, and that's the review I'm going to begin now.  Miller begins by reciting Kentucky's résumé, then moves on to the history of the Wildcats.  Of course, no reasonable look at Kentucky is complete without examining the bad and the controversial, and Miller is straightforward in his look at the point-shaving scandals of the 1950's, and even notes the fact that Bill Spivey wound up being banned by the NBA despite never having been implicated in the scandal.  Guilt by association was a big thing in those days.

Mike goes on to look briefly at the 1976 and 1989 probations, and points out that most programs in America have had to deal with NCAA rules infractions and probation, not just Kentucky.  I think Miller fairly keeps to the view of the facts without descending into the kind of hyper-judgmental castigation that we have seen so often before.

Then Miller gets to a very delicate subject for 'Cat fans, the legacy of Adolph Rupp as viewed through the lens of "Glory Road."  Here is where I have my first objection to his piece, which is this paragraph:

But Rupp also was a man of the era. Kentucky, like any other southern school until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, didn’t recruit black players. Various reports indicate Rupp was entirely in favor of this un-written policy. (Kentucky’s first black player was Tom Payne, who did play under Rupp in 1970.)

I think we can all agree that times were different then, altough I have come to view the phrase, "man of [his time] [the era]," with a bit of suspicion -- some have used this as code language to avoid the word "racist," thereby making their portrayal look less judgmental.   Another unfortunate decision, in my view, was the link above, which is to an article by Gregory Favre that I have discussed at length before.  While Favre's article may be accurate (we don't know, since he offers no independent validation, which, to be fair, may be impossible), it represents a 40-year old recollection by a man who clearly didn't like Adolph Rupp, then or now.  That doesn't make it false, but it does make me question his veracity.

Miller then redeems himself completely, in my view, by linking to Jon Scott's outstanding examination of Rupp's alleged racial bias.  It's a shame that one is forced to face Favre's allegations before looking at a real, relatively dispassionate view of the facts, but that's just the way things go.  For my money, Miller could have skipped Favre's article completely and just linked Scott's analysis, since it takes both sides of the argument.  But be that as it may, Miller refuses to pass judgment on the subject other than to point out:

All of this isn’t meant to defend or castigate Rupp, but to raise points why Kentucky has its share of detractors -- and to be somewhat amazed that through the NCAA issues and racial tension that Kentucky is still No. 1 on this list.

In fairness, this says a lot more about Mike Miller than Kentucky, and in a good way.  In the past, many have found that the occasional NCAA sanctions, especially viewed through the perfect hindsight of Rupp's alleged racial bias was more than sufficient to knock Kentucky out of the #1 spot, while glossing over the problems with other competitors for the position, essentially judging Kentucky more harshly.  To his credit (in my view), Miller refuses to take the easy way out.

The next several paragraphs, to me, are uncontroversial, but then we get to the issue of Tubby Smith.  He links to a New York Times article by Ray Glier that gives us this:

Smith has never received universal support among Kentucky's fans, despite his success. Many fans never reconciled the departure of Rick Pitino in 1997 and the notion that Smith, a disciple of Pitino's, would lead a program befitting a star.

I've got news that may come as a shock to everyone not a Kentucky fan, but no coach in Kentucky history, not Adolph Rupp, Joe Hall, or anyone, has received "universal support" from Kentucky fans.  Rick Pitino probably was the closest of any coach in history to having that, and the fan love of Pitino was largely due to the fact that he was the exact antidote UK needed, exactly when we needed it.  Circumstances were much kinder to Pitino than to Tubby Smith, as Smith took over a program that had nowhere to go but down.

Miller points out that the long Final Four drought was a big part of the problem, and I think we can all agree that is so.  But Miller closes with this:

Is it fair? Probably not. But that’s part of coaching at Kentucky. Even if one wins 76 percent of the time (as Smith did), the ultimate goals are NCAA titles and Final Fours.

Such is life at the greatest college basketball program of all time. Kentucky's not perfect, just the best.

This is an allegory for life, not just basketball programs.  There are lots of inequities, unfairness, wrong thinking and general smarminess in all great programs, just as in life.  The interactions of humanity are always flawed, and that is certainly so with Kentucky basketball. 

But by judging UK on its merits rather than hyperbole and conventional wisdom, Miller has done himself proud.  Would I have been so full of praise for him if he had picked North Carolina?  We will never know, and honestly, probably not.  But this is a Kentucky blog, and you will just have to forgive a little homerism.

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