The University of Kentucky Wildcats are the No. 1 men’s basketball team in the nation and the top overall seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament. Their team features the likely National Player of the Year in Anthony Davis as well as five other potential NBA draft picks. And the Wildcats are coached by John Calipari, already one of the most successful coaches in college-basketball history at age 53. Kentucky is the clear favorite to win the tournament, and that is a shame — because an early Kentucky exit would cause repercussions that could change college basketball for the better.
Calipari has become the undisputed master of the “one and done” system. He dispenses with the fiction that he is providing an avenue to an education and unabashedly recruits high-school athletes by telling them that his goal is to prepare them for the NBA; they stay a year, and they leave. With that enticement, he consistently signs phenomenal recruiting classes. His 2010 team featuring John Wall sent four freshmen straight to the NBA. This year, Kentucky features four freshmen who were top-25 college prospects (three were in the top ten). They won’t stay long. As USA Today noted last week, Kentucky senior Darius Miller “has had 40 different teammates” in his four years with the Wildcats.
Calipari is widely despised for having built a career on recruiting NBA-caliber players with the promise to prep them for the pros. Although I am no Calipari fan, I contend that this is less than fair. Calipari is accused of exploiting his athletes by not encouraging them to stay in school. But it is the NCAA that encourages their early departure by shamelessly exploiting them. Calipari simply exploits the system the NCAA created. And therein lies the importance of this tournament for both Calipari and college basketball in general.
Calipari successfully deployed his strategy at the University of Massachusetts and at Memphis, which landed him the most coveted coaching job in college basketball: Kentucky’s. (He was also stripped of NCAA tournament wins for NCAA violations under his watch at UMass and Memphis, but that’s another story.) Yet for all his success, Calipari has yet to win a national championship. His freshmen-centric teams have fizzled in the tournament, none more dramatically than his previous Kentucky teams. Anything short of a national title for this year’s highly favored team will further advance the conventional wisdom that leadership from upperclassmen is necessary to win national championships. It also will put a lot of pressure on Calipari from within the Kentucky basketball community to keep his players in school longer so they can bring the old alma mater some hardware for the trophy shelf, which has been awaiting its eighth resident since the last one arrived in 1998. But it will also do something more important.
It will put more pressure on the NCAA and the NBA to change the rules or the incentives, or both, so that players either cannot leave after their freshman year or have less incentive to do so. Though admittedly there is a risk that this could simply result in the increased exploitation of college athletes, it does present the possibility that the NCAA might finally allow players to be more appropriately compensated.