Top of the heap

(Courtesy Kentucky Sports Information)
(Courtesy Kentucky Sports Information)

Bill Koch, Columnist

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John Calipari, National Champion.

Read that phrase again. Let it roll off your tongue a couple of times. The fan bases at Massachusetts and Memphis are feeling a little queasy right about now. Kentucky supporters can’t imagine anything sweeter.

Such is the difficulty of attempting to pin down exactly what Calipari’s standing and legacy in college basketball eventually will be, but after the Wildcats’ 67-59 victory over Kansas he can be found squarely at the top of the heap.

I’m a college basketball traditionalist in the sense that I still subscribe to the quaint notion that players should go to a school, bond with their classmates, earn a degree that will last them the rest of their lives and enjoy their last four years before heading out into the real world. I also know that we live in 2012, not 1952. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague will probably limit their respective college careers to the 40 games they played this season. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb lasted a bit longer – 78 games over two seasons, to be exact. Kentucky’s latest collection of young talent bound for the NBA brought a first title to Lexington since 1998, and their amateur contributions to the basketball world will likely end there.

What Calipari has done is transform Kentucky into an NBA prep school, adapting to the one-and-done rule passed in 2006 better than any other coach in America. The Wildcats’ current brand of basketball features a professional style based on offensive aggression and defensive athleticism, a system that allows players to easily transition to the next level. Calipari’s ability to mold a group of individual stars into a unit was his greatest strength this season and has highlighted his tenure with Kentucky. Look no further than Austin Rivers (43.3 percent shooting, 65.8 percent foul shooting, more turnovers than assists this season) and his struggles to adapt his isolation-style, NBA-ready game into Duke’s traditional offense as an example of what can happen when great talent doesn’t find quite the right fit.

But the story doesn’t end there, as fans of the Minutemen and Tigers know only too well. UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008) were both forced to vacate Final Four berths after NCAA violations were uncovered, though Calipari himself was cleared of any direct involvement. But should Calipari have known Marcus Camby was receiving improper benefits and/or know more about Derrick Rose's SAT score?  Was it reasonable to expect that the persons in charge should have known what subordinates were doing? After all, head coaches are supposed to be the CEOs and final authorities in their programs. The ultimate credit and blames lies with them, like it or not.

Calipari’s detractors use those past brushes with the NCAA as the ammunition to question the validity of every high-profile recruit that Kentucky signs. The Wildcats already have three top-40 high school players in the fold for next season and were serious contenders for Shabazz Muhammad (comitted to UCLA), Nerlens Noel (who has now committed to UK), Anthony Bennett and Tony Parker, top-50 players who have reportedly been offered scholarships by the Wildcats. Professional basketball is the goal for such talented performers, and winning a title this season allows Kentucky to offer both the realistic opportunity to contribute to a championship culture and jump on the fast track to NBA riches.

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Depends on who you ask.

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