Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Dealing With Calipari's Critics

Calipari's critics want to blame him for the "one-and-done" rule, rather than acknowledge that it is an NBA rule and that he has nothing to do with it.

This is a post that's been begging to be written for almost a week, but due to the time pressure of events surrounding the conference and NCAA tournaments, it has been impossible.The opportunity for it to crawl out of its conceptual lair and into the light of day has finally arrived.

Recently, there have been several articles critical of UK coach John Calipari, both implicitly and explicitly. Each one of those articles deserves a response, and in fact, a response is exactly what's necessary. Part of the reason that there is so much negative sentiment toward Coach Cal is because so many articles like these three have been allowed to pass unchallenged and unremarked-upon. That's unfair to the readers of the articles, fans of Kentucky Basketball, and to Calipari himself.

The first in the series of articles we'll be discussing is this one by Orlando Sentinel writer and central Florida radio loudmouth Mike Bianchi. Greg Alan Edwards dealt briefly with Bianchi's article here a bit earlier, but this piece is part and parcel of an oft-repeated meme, so it is included here to make the tapestry more complete. Here is his point:

...Calipari has built the nation's most dominant basketball team by becoming the sport's ultimate baby-daddy. Who will ever forget two years ago when Kentucky — after finishing with a 35-3 record and advancing into the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament — had five players, including four freshmen, taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Calipari, obviously forgetting the seven national titles the storied Wildcats have in their history, called it "the biggest day in the history of the Kentucky program."

Translation: Sending players to the NBA is more important to Calipari than all that other stuff college is supposed to be about. You know, stuff like growing up, developing as a person, going to class, getting a degree, blah, blah, blah.

Of all the articles in this group, Bianchi's is perhaps the easiest to ignore. After all, Bianchi is a Florida team partisan, and partisans write stuff like this. For now, we'll just let this stand and move on to the other two to finish the picture they are all three a part of.

The second article is by Steve Wieberg in USA Today from about 3 days ago when your humble correspondent was out of town. Here is the relevant passage from that piece:

Catch them while you can. Calipari's program is a pipeline to the NBA, sending seven underclassmen into the draft in the past two years. Another batch figures to jump this June, adding to what their coach sees satisfyingly as a fraternity of Kentucky-refined millionaires.

[Former Princeton basketball player Gary] Walters sees something else. "How can one embrace and really feel good about people — quote, student-athletes — representing your university who in essence are rent-a-year players? It goes a long way toward tainting the credibility of the tournament," he says.

"Would I have an interest in watching a team on television that has one-and-done players at the Final Four? I can tell you, personally, no."

This piece, if you read it, is pretty fair. For the most part, Wieberg solicits alternative viewpoints for every criticism, and Calipari gets plenty of run defending his philosophy and the program. But if you see a theme emerging here, it's intentional.

Finally, we have this article yesterday by none other than Thayer Evans, former Pete Thamel running-mate at the New York Times and now Fox Sports writer. This piece is offered under the super-head of "Fox World Exclusive:"

Although Calipari wouldn’t admit Kentucky was struggling, he knew it. That’s exactly why he downplayed the importance of winning the SEC tournament Saturday, just in case the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt.

He can spin it all he wants, but his team’s flaws — including sleepwalking lapses, a tendency to be stagnant offensively and suspect defensive fundamentals — are major issues. Oh, and don’t forget Kentucky shies away from physical play and has a short bench.

It’s all a recipe for another Calipari team to disappoint in the NCAA tournament, especially with a difficult path looming potentially as soon as the third round against underachieving Connecticut.

This one more of a series of Evans articles on Fox Sports critical of Calipari as a coach, and his philosophy of recruiting the best players available.

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Now that the table is set, let's look at the points all three of these articles make:

  • Recruiting players who are only likely to be at Kentucky one year is wrong;
  • Recruiting so many good players is unfair;
  • John Calipari is only successful because of his recruiting, not his coaching.

Many times we have heard the complaint that "one and dones" are bad for college basketball. Calipari has repeatedly pointed out, apparently fruitlessly, that this is an NBA rule and has nothing to do with him or the NCAA. But for some reason, writers and fans blame Calipari not only for the rule itself, but for shamelessly exploiting it. That is absurd for three very straightforward reasons:

  1. Calipari has argued against the rule, and has actively tried to get the NCAA to change the rule by meeting with NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter and trying to convince him that changing it is in the best interests of the young men and the NBA.

    You see, it is the NBA Player's Association who are responsible for the "one and done" rule, not the league management or David Stern. The league management and Stern want the rule to be extended out to two or three years, but the NBAPA will not have it. Discussing the merits of the arguments from both sides is beyond the scope of this piece, but the upshot is that the NCAA has no say whatsoever in this, and Calipari is trying to get it extended out as far as possible.

  2. The "one and done rule" is not in Calipari's best interests. How much better would Kentucky's teams be if these freshman stars he is recruiting stayed longer? Why would a coach want his team hamstrung by a high turnover rate and low player experience? There is no logic, extrapolation of logic, or theory that would make this reasonable.

    The counter to this is that you can always recruit players that won't leave. That is code for, "recruit less-skilled players so everyone else can compete with you better." Nobody wants to say that, but that's exactly what these critics mean. None of these guys want Kentucky to win more, they want Calipari to do their bidding and recruit players who aren't as good as the ones he is recruiting now. Who's interests does that serve? Not Kentucky's, and not Calipari's.

  3. Somebody has to recruit these kids, and they will be "one and done" in any case. Does anyone seriously think Austin Rivers at Duke is going to be in college next year? Does anyone remember that Kyrie Irving played for Duke for only one year last year, and left despite missing 40% of the season due to injury? Is the two years that Harrison Barnes will stay at UNC that much better than the one Anthony Davis will likely stay at UK?

    Calipari recruits the best talent available, just like all coaches do. Do you seriously think Mike Krzyzewski would decline recruiting Irving or Rivers because they were likely to be "one and done?" Do you think he didn't know that before he recruited them?

Nobody is seriously suggesting, at least not yet, that players be subjected to some kind of oath or test of their fealty to the almighty diploma. Yet at the same time, Calipari's critics are bemoaning the fact that his players do not stay, and blaming him for that. If we follow that line of reasoning, what it suggests is that Calipari's critics think he should try to persuade his players to stay, heedless of the fact that they are ready for commercial success after only one year at UK.

It's as if they clearly understand that is what some coaches do, and somehow conclude that dissuading players who are clearly ready to step up to the next level is a noble thing, ostensibly under the rubric that staying in college and getting an education is more important that the millions of dollars players will lose in their lives by not striking when the iron is hot. Is that truly a defensible position?

Calipari doesn't think so. He rationalizes that players can always obtain a degree later on, but by skipping out on an NBA draft when players are ready to be a high pick can result in financial disaster. What if the player is injured in his second year? That will always damage pro prospects. Or suppose, like DaJuan Wagner, they develop a disease that stops them from playing? If Wagner had stayed at Memphis until he graduated, he would never have played pro basketball due to his development of ulcerative colitis. It would have cost him millions of dollars, and for what?

In the minds of his critics, Calipari's only goal should be education, and apparently at astronomical costs. Lie, cheat, steal, do whatever to get the kids to come back and get their education, an education most of them will never need to be successful and can always get at a later time. Where is the compassion in that? Can anyone seriously argue that it is in a kid's best interests to skip tens of millions of dollars for a diploma? I know the cost of college is high, but seriously, that's risible to the point of ridicule.

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Secondly is the unfairness of Kentucky getting all those great players. Particularly in the Gary Walters comments in the USA Today piece, you can see this theme, and it is far from noble. The fact of the Kentucky players' talent is offset, to some degree, by their youth, a point abundantly made by Evans above, but you get the idea that Walters just isn't happy with a team this talented that hasn't paid their dues by going through four years of college.

It is not these players fault that they were given prodigious basketball talent by their creator. We should not be talking about denying them a place in the college game because of their skill, or complaining about how good they are, or disparaging them as "mercenaries" or "rent-a-year players." It is unworthy and wrong-headed, and has no place in a sports conversation. It is the worst sort of sour grapes, and a breathtakingly unethical position. Calipari is so successful because he rejects this complete abdication of reason in favor of pragmatism and logic.

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The final point is leveled as an accusation by Thayer Evans that Calipari is a bad coach, and it is one of several times he has done so recently. That's really nothing new, as every coach and program is going to have its critics, and to be fair to Evans, Calipari has not managed to win an NCAA championship yet at Kentucky despite having some very good teams.

That's not new among coaches, as Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams famously had a number of championship-caliber teams before finally claiming the brass ring. But Evans' larger point is that Calipari is only successful because he recruits "one and done" players. This is such a patently absurd notion that any truly rational person would be embarrassed by it.

Why? Well mainly because it completely ignores Calipari's success at UMass and Memphis. At UMass, Calipari took over a team that hadn't won more than 13 games in a season in ten years. In Coach Cal's second season at UMass, he won 17 games. In his third, 20. In his fourth, 30, and no less than 24 for the rest of his career there, including 35 in his final year, 1995-96. Note that Marcus Camby, who was at UMass from 1993-1996 and subsequently violated NCAA rules by taking money and other favors from agents, was not involved in a number of Calipari's great UMass seasons. There was no "one and done" in those days, yet Evans conveniently ignores that.

At Memphis, Calipari took that program to new heights, never winning less than 21 games and missing the NCAA tournament only 3 times out of 9 years, winning one NIT championship and getting to one Final Four. One and done players were only a part of 3 of those teams, if I remember correctly. Calipari must have been doing something else right, both at UMass and Memphis.

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In the final analysis, there are no sure things in college basketball. Kentucky may very well lose this year on their way to the NCAA Tournament title, as they have so many times before, and as every single team but one per year in America has since 1939. Kentucky is a current favorite, and deserves to be, but there are no guarantees.

But if they do lose, it won't be because Calipari is a bad coach, or because Kentucky has one-and-done players, or because their talent level is unfair. It will be because some other team played better on that day, or a combination of Kentucky being sufficiently off and their opponent being sufficiently good. That's why we play the games, instead of just awarding Kentucky the trophy after the season is over -- a season in which they were a unanimous #1.

Nobody should argue that UConn was the best team last year -- they weren't. Ohio State was, yet Ohio State lost to Kentucky, at team full of one and done with only a single "one-and-done" player, the same number as Duke. That's how it goes in college basketball.

There are also no guaranteed "one and done" players, although if Anthony Davis tries to come back, Calipari would likely tear up his scholarship papers, like he famously said he did in the case of DaJuan Wagner. It makes no sense for Davis to come back, and in fact, one can very persuasively argue that it made no sense for him to come to college in the first place.

But those are the rules, and they are not John Calipari's rules.

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