Today, I just want everyone to think about one premise, and I hope you’ll take the time to offer your commentary and observations about it. The premise is this: the 2014-15 Kentucky basketball team is the archetype of what a college basketball team should be.
To analyze this further, I am considering this hypothesis free of encumbrance from the traditional definition of what a "student-athlete" is. That term was always an idyllic one that never actually provided a true reflection of the elite athletes in college sports. Ever since there have been professional sports, people with great athletic skills have almost always made it their mission to earn their livelihood athletically.
I offer this assertion based on what a basketball team should do. Basketball is a team sport that necessarily demands sacrifice, teamwork, trust, and a dedication to learning from the coaching staff and implementing their instructions. All these things, not just some of them, are required for success in team sports generally, not just basketball. The closer you hew to these ideals, the better your team is likely to be regardless of athletic or basketball talent. The greater the degree of self-interest, immaturity, jealousy, and lack of trust, the greater the likelihood, and magnitude, of failure.
Kentucky embodies all those team things, then adds extraordinary talent and athleticism into the equation. The are high-school superstars, some of whom are seeing only single-digit minutes playing with other players of similar repute. They sacrifice willingly for the objective of winning, and of creating the best version of themselves that they can according to John Calipari’s self-stated mission.
This excellent article by Tommy Tomlinson over at ESPN helps explain my premise, although it doesn’t explicitly adopt it.. In Tomlinson’s piece, he covers a lot more ground than the scope of this one, but some of his points are particularly trenchant. Consider:
They [Kentucky] excel at simple plays: jump hooks in the paint, passing to the open man, squaring up on defense. Calipari’s dribble-drive offense lets any player take his man to the basket, but the freedom only works with discipline. These players share. No one scores more than 11 points a game. Eight players average between 20 and 26 minutes. (That includes [Alex] Poythress, who played just eight games before tearing his left ACL.) They might have the most pure talent of any college team in history. But they play like a Dean Smith dream.
This is Calipari’s most powerful magic. Year after year, he gets the country’s best players to mute their egos. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he wants the league to change the one-and-done rule and instead make players wait two years after high school before turning pro. Part of his argument is that one-and-done players don’t learn how to build a team. Kentucky has been the rebuttal. If you hang around Calipari long enough, you are guaranteed to hear this stat: Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who led the Wildcats to the 2012 title and were the top two picks in the NBA draft, took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on the Kentucky team that year. This year, though, with several players on their second season, they could be making Silver’s case.
They "play like a Dean Smith dream." This is something that much of the commentariat, too suffused with self-righteous hatred of the "one and done" and frustration at least with Calipari’s embrace of an NBA rule that assails their naive sense of what college athletics should be, simply refuse, or are too willfully blind to see. In it’s essence, this year’s Kentucky team is the realization of the early-season promise of last year that quickly went into the tank, the re-emerged in March like a butterfly from a chrysalis.
Leave aside the Calipari stuff, the "one and done," all of the ancillary debates that have been swirling around college basketball for years. Consider, rather, what you see before you — a team of young men that plays like the teams of yore, like the very teams Michael Winereb would prefer to watch; "good mid-major" teams.
Kentucky executes like a great mid-major, but has the talent of a Power 5 conference team. In that way, they are unlike almost any college team outside of the Virginia Cavaliers, who by my lights are much the same way although they lack Kentucky’s talent and depth. They make up for it just like many, perhaps most mid-majors do — by keeping possessions lower.
I encourage you to enjoy this upcoming NCAA Tournament, because win or lose, what we have seen at Kentucky this year is truly historic — a basketball team full of guys who could be Jahlil Okafor, but instead, are happy letting him get the accolades and are simply playing the game together like you might among peers who did not have NBA careers at stake. Instead of showing off their talent, they are showing off their maturity, their commitment to excellence, and to each other.
If that doesn’t inspire you, you’re too cynical for your own good.