Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 5, 2012

John Calipari, King Of The One-And-Done Era

On Monday night the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team won the school’s eighth national championship, defeating Kansas 67-59 in the capstone to this year’s version of March Madness. Yet even as the confetti rained down at the Louisiana Superdome to celebrate the Wildcats’ victory, there was an inescapable sense of emptiness in the air. For that matter while even casual sports fans fixated as always on the three weeks of the tournament and the Final Four semifinal contests received the highest TV ratings since 2005, the whole tournament was lacking in drama. With the overall number one seed winning the national title in the fashion that Kentucky did, a new era may well have officially come to men’s college basketball. If so, the month of March henceforth may be decidedly more sad than mad.

There were few stunning upsets and virtually no thrilling buzzer beaters this year. Yes, second seeded Duke was bounced from the South Regional in the very first round, and there were a couple of the obligatory twelve seeds beating fives in the opening contests. But this year’s Duke team was living on the program’s reputation more than its own ability. The Blue Devils lost six times prior to the tournament, including three times to then-unranked schools and a pair of blowout losses to highly ranked Ohio State and UNC. As for the other opening upsets, even fans who fill out their office pool brackets based mostly on which teams have cute mascots know that a twelve seed or two always beats a five in the opening round. I think it’s a requirement written deep in some obscure subsection of the NCAA rule book.

By the time the regional semi-finals, the so-called Sweet Sixteen rolled around, eleven of the contestants were ranked among the top four in their respective regions. When four tickets for New Orleans were punched at the end of the tournament’s second weekend, the survivors in addition to Kentucky were two number two seeds in Ohio State and Kansas, and the University of Louisville, the number four seed in the West Region. When the “underdog” of the Final Four is a team coached by Rick Pitino, who has now taken three different programs to a total of six Final Fours, and who won it all while at Kentucky in 1996, there really is no underdog. In short this was a tournament that lacked the sweet storyline of a Virginia Commonwealth or a Butler or a George Mason making an improbable run from a position deep in the bracket to challenge the big boys of college hoops. It was missing even the drama supplied last year by Kemba Walker, who seemed to singlehandedly put UConn on his back and carry the Huskies through five wins in as many nights to win the Big East tourney; and then keep right on charging until he and his teammates were cutting down the nets in Houston as 2011 national champions.

Instead this year we got John Calipari, the only head coach in NCAA history to have a Final Four appearance vacated at more than one school. Calipari took UMass to the Final Four in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, only to have both appearances scrubbed from the record books because of violations involving first Marcus Camby of the Minutemen and then Derrick Rose of the Tigers. While Calipari himself was never implicated by the NCAA in the issues surrounding either Camby or Rose, the history does suggest a pattern of recruiting right up to the edge of what NCAA rules allow. If a player on their own crosses over that edge; well by the time the investigation is over the coach has moved on to another program and a richer contract anyway. Which just may make Calipari the perfect coach for this new era in NCAA Division I men’s basketball.

The starting five that Calipari put on the floor for Monday night’s final against Kansas were all freshmen and sophomores. Now that they have won their championship, all are expected to leave college and enter the NBA Draft. Since 2005 the NBA has required that in order to enter the Draft a player must be 19 years old and one year out of high school. The rule was put in place to stop the growing number of players making the gigantic leap straight from a high school gym to an NBA arena. Some of those players, like LeBron James, became instant stars. Others, like Kobe Bryant, took some time to adjust to the professional game, but eventually emerged as dominant players as well. But many teenagers with brilliant jump shots simply lacked the emotional or psychological maturity to handle all that is expected of sports stars at the professional level. To get NBA scouts out of high school gyms, the new rule was enacted.

While it doesn’t specifically require a player to go to college (one could play professionally in Europe for a year, for example), the impact of the rule has been to create a growing legion of “one and done” players who enroll in a college from which they have no intention of ever receiving a diploma. There is not a coach in the land who does a better job of recruiting such players than Calipari. At a school with a long tradition of basketball greatness playing in a power conference (the SEC), the coach can entice a high school senior with the promise of high visibility throughout the regular season coupled with the likelihood of a good run, perhaps even a great run as happened this year, through the NCAA tournament. All of which only helps to elevate that player’s standing with NBA teams, thus increasing the chances of the young man becoming a high draft pick. Of course, the higher the draft pick the fatter the initial contract. Recruit, win, rinse and repeat.

One can hardly blame the players, who have a chance at a life-changing payday, and who must weigh that chance against the possibility that an unexpected injury during another year at college could undo their dream. Nor can one really blame Calipari for so successfully exploiting a rule that he didn’t write. Indeed he claims not to like it, as do NBA Commissioner David Stern, any number of other college head coaches, university presidents and NCAA officials. Of course, none of those sternly shaking their heads in disapproval are going to lift a finger to change the rule; nor is anyone at Kentucky or in the NCAA going to turn down any of the millions of television and sponsorship dollars that roll in as a result of on-court success.

But the focus on one-and-done players does tilt the Division I playing field. No coach at a VCU or a Butler can promise a high school recruit either the exposure or the likely success that a Calipari at Kentucky can. So the college basketball rich get richer, and March Madness becomes less crazy, more predictable, and frankly less fun for the fans. The one-and-done players become rich, but not necessarily successful. Being a high draft pick means joining a bad professional team, and often having to wait years for worthy teammates to come along. John Wall, how’s that Washington Wizards thing working out for you?

Despite his protests, Calipari’s real opinion of college basketball’s new one-and-done era was revealed when he called the 2010 NBA Draft the greatest moment in the history of University of Kentucky basketball. For Calipari, greater than the school’s then-seven national titles, or any of the myriad accomplishments of the legendary coach Adolph Rupp was the fact that five Wildcats, four of whom were freshmen, were chosen in the first round of that year’s Draft. But Calipari may have to amend his choice of Kentucky basketball’s high point. Not because he’s now finally won a national title, but because this year he could have six of his players picked in round one. As they depart the Lexington campus they scarcely had time to know, call them great players and call them champions, for they are both. Just don’t call them student-athletes; because nothing could be further from the truth.

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