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Kentucky Basketball: The Exodus

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The time has come to address the departures of current players in favor of the slew of highly-ranked recruits that John Calipari has brought with him to Kentucky.

Yesterday, A.J. Stewart, Jared Carter, Donald Williams and Landon Slone all announced their intention to leave the program and transfer to another institution.  We all know that none of these decisions were likely to have been 100% voluntary on the part of the players.  They were most likely assured that they would not see the light of day if they stayed (in the case of Stewart), or that the extra year of eligibility would not be required (in the case of Carter), or that the much-discussed one-year agreement for Williams would be exercised.  Landon Slone is a separate case I will discuss later.

I am not happy with the way this has gone, and I do think Calipari could have handled the scholarship situation better.  What he has done is effectively turn UK into an NBA franchise, and while that might be good for wins and losses and national championships, it isn't going to be welcomed everywhere.  Some people are going to be very upset with how this is going down, and they have every right to be.  UK has historically honored its scholarships, and has only rarely (if ever) done what is going on right now -- forcing players to transfer in order to make room under the "scholarship cap."  I don't like it, but with that said, I am also not going to come down too hard on Coach Calipari for a couple of reasons, which I will now detail.

The first reason is that it is the responsibility of the UK athletics administration to set the policy for player retention during a coaching change.  My understanding is that Coach Calipari had to agree not to force out any seniors who would be returning this year.  So far, he has not done so, which leads me to believe that this agreement is real.  That also indicates to me that Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart implicitly (and perhaps explicitly) agreed to let Calipari force out any players who were not seniors that the coach felt he could not use.  So before I would blast Calipari, I would let Barnhart have it -- in my opinion, it is the Athletics Director's responsibility to set transitional scholarship policy, not the coach's, and the constraints of Barnhart's policy apparently did not include A.J. Stewart.  Donald Williams had agreed with the previous regime not to seek scholarship renewal, so there is really nothing more to say about that.

The second reason that Calipari gets off with a mild scolding is that when UK decided to bring him here, they decided that it was in the best interests of the school and basketball program to pay him an unprecedented salary which demands immediate results.  To do that and hamstring him by not allowing scholarship changes would most likely have been a deal-breaker.  Calipari can't come in at 3+ million/year and not have an immediate impact.  We just went through that, and the result was ... unfortunate.

There is no question whatever that Barnhart, Calipari and Dr. Lee Todd knew this day would come, and have agreed among each other that they will take the heat for this, and there is going to be some.  And there should be.  But it will pass.

John Calipari has, in the past, done some rather ethics-challenged things with scholarships.  In particular, he once made a package deal for Kendrick Perkins (now of the Boston Celtics) and Keena Young, his high school teammate, to sign together, then reportedly tried to renege on his agreement with Young when Perkins decided to go straight to the NBA.  In my opinion, that's not the proper spirit for amateur athletics, and my understanding is that after that particular episode, Coach Calipari has not done that again. I am willing, therefore,  to chalk that up to experience.

But it's impossible to ignore the fact that Coach Calipari is effectively pulling player's scholarships, and I can't remember that ever happening at UK solely to make room for better players.  It looks really bad, and even though it is strictly within the NCAA rules and couched as a mutual decision, we would be less than honest with ourselves if we thought that was actually so.  The feel of this whole affair is very NBAish, and it makes me uncomfortable and unhappy.

I will not criticize Coach Calipari for his mix-up with Landon Slone, and I think others are off-base for having done so.  Landon Slone is a fine young man and a Kentucky boy, two things we really like around here.  He works as hard as anyone can, but he is in no way qualified to suit up as a UK Wildcat under the current regime.  He was fine under Billy Gillispie's system, but Calipari's system is a complete non-starter for him and he is mature enough to know that.  He is a walk-on, and as such he serves at the absolute discretion of the coach.  I do think that Calipari should have sat down with him and would have eventually done so, but I also understand that he probably did not intend to slight Landon in any way.  Calipari may have faults, but when it comes to the little guy, he appears to always be willing to sit down and talk even if it means brutal honesty.  So criticize Calipari for non-renewing scholarships, but as far as I can tell, his handling of Slone is strictly above-board.

In the final analysis, UK and Coach Calipari will get criticized for this purge of the roster, and they should.  It is a bad thing to do, and I am not going to sugar-coat that aspect of it.  The best thing about it is that this is hopefully a one-time, transitional deal.  Yes, I know that is an ethical compromise on my part, and I'll gladly take the heat for it.  I don't advocate "ends justifies the means" opportunism a the expense of young athletes, and I won't excuse it here.  What I will say is that I am a UK fan, and as such I am unwilling to blast the new coach for something that was well-known when his employment was being negotiated.  The University of Kentucky abandoned these young men to their fate, and I think the blame properly belongs with the athletics administration.  Yes, Calipari could have stopped at Cousins, but that was clearly never his intention, and that was no doubt communicated up front.

At the end of the day, what we have here are several young men who will continue their college careers elsewhere.  The worst part of this whole affair is that they had to wait so long for it to happen, but in reality, the NBA draft and general attrition will open up spots for these players on other teams.  It may not be the teams they would prefer, but let's face it -- as unfortunate situations go, getting a full ride at a school other than UK is not all that lamentable, and in the case of Stewart at least, the year served in residence is likely to do more to help him than hurt him.  Williams still potentially has four full years of college eligibility since he did not play at all last year, and Jared Carter's situation is sad but was likely inevitable regardless of who the coach was.

There will be at least one more domino to fall, but I will have nothing further to say about this -- it is what it is, and if some of us are forced to live with a bit of shame, well, life goes on.  Obviously if this becomes the norm and not the one-time exception, I will have much more strident criticism.  But I don't expect that to happen.  The Great Roster Purge of 2009 is a bitter pill to swallow, and I'm not convinced UK needed medicine this strong.  But I am ready to swallow it, chased with a bit of my pride in the program, and move on.  Becoming a relentless critic of my favorite college basketball team may be interesting to others, but not to me, and I have wandered too long in the desert of irrelevance to be hypercritical so early in a new coach's career at UK.