Kentucky Basketball: The Upperclassmen vs. Freshmen Debate Re-Examined

Andy Lyons

Perhaps the terms of the debate about upperclassmen vs. freshmen needs to be reconsidered.

In a recent piece, David Jones of Florida Today writes a more or less run-of-the-mill "veterans vs. newcomers" article in which Kentucky coach John Calipari figures prominently. We've had this debate many times on A Sea of Blue and elsewhere in the Big Blue Nation, and one of the reasons is that there seems to be no clear definition of the situation until perhaps this season.

For the past four and a half years, Kentucky fans have watched Calipari's "never been done before" experiment stuffing highly-touted freshmen, many of whom figure to be one-and-done types of talents, into his basketball teams. The success of this program has been undeniable, but it can't quite be said that it is consistent, especially considering last season's lack of success and a slower-than-expected start this season.

I do think there are lessons to be learned from last season and the below-expectations start that Kentucky's had this season. One is, it's one thing to start some freshmen, it's another to start four freshmen and one sophomore. Freshmen are always going to have a tougher time finding an identity than a team with a mix, and one sophomore is not really the kind of mix anyone would call ideal.

Second, I think this quote by Jay Bilas in Jones' article is either right or wrong depending on context:

"But I would rather have really talented seniors than super talented freshmen. Now, if you have no talent, I don’t care what age they are. You’ve got to have talent."

I would rather have a mix of talented upperclassmen and super-talented freshmen, and judging from how things are going, that's what we're likely to wind up with next season. You can't ask for really great players to hang out for three or four years in college anymore, but what you can do is get some really good players that will need that time to develop, and bring in superstar frosh.

Up until last season, I don't think Calipari was thinking that way — he was thinking to get as many great freshmen as possible, mix in a sprinkle of experience, and voilà! — championship contender. Now, I think he is re-imagining his vision. In other words, the "old vs. young" debate is really not the debate that UK fans should be interested in. The debate that we should be having is, "what is the ideal mix of experience and talent, and how do we get that?"

The experience vs. talent discussion has long turned on the idea that it is a zero-sum game, and Calipari, in no small part, is responsible for that. But now that he has that generational class, the one we always hoped he would land, and the results to date have trailed expectations by quite a bit, I think we should revisit the matter, and redefine the debate a bit from talent vs. experience to talent plus experience.

This young UK team may eventually live up to all expectations in the end, because after all, nobody would complain about a 32-8 season where the team won the NCAA Tournament title. But you can bet you'd be able to cut the angst with a knife during the season if that were to be the path the team winds up taking.

No matter what happens this season, next season is shaping up to be a team with both talent and experience unless something really unexpected happens. 2014-15 could wind up being the most balanced Kentucky team since 2010 in terms of talent and experience. It's pretty clear that Calipari has figured out that he needs a modicum of experience in the starting lineup, and I'm not talking just a sophomore center. How little or how much can only be refined to a degree — after all, Calipari did not expect to lose Kyle Wiltjer to Gonzaga last year, and probably did not expect to lose Marquis Teague to the NBA in 2012.

The talent vs. experience debate is probably going to rage for years to come. We are going to see more freshmen-laden teams that provoke the commentariat to assure all and sundry that such youth never succeeds, just look at 2013 Kentucky (and please ignore 2012 as an anomaly). But 2012, if nothing else, stands as an example that even a little upper class experience helps, perhaps more than can be properly measured. Even this season, Jarrod Polson, a player nobody would consider "very good" in an unbiased evaluation of his talent on an absolute scale, has been able to contribute significantly to this year's team aided mainly by his physical and mental maturity when compared to the rest of the team.

It may turn out this season that experience in the starting lineup isn't absolutely necessary — Kentucky of this season is certainly good enough to win it all whether they ultimately do or not — but we have all seen that the learning curve in college basketball cannot be completely flattened by talent. Experience combined with talent seem to be the fastest and most complete leveler of the curve. I think that lesson is not lost on Calipari, either, although I wouldn't expect him to tout it — it runs counter to his marketing plan.

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