Kentucky players ready to face NBA challenges
From Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News…
They made the announcement together, which certainly was fitting, and it was at their insistence. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague officially left NCAA basketball behind Tuesday evening, but, unofficially, they never will leave Kentucky.
In just seven months, they forged themselves into a team for the ages and, more to the point, for this age.
Their collective departure for the NBA Draft will not be universally appreciated, however, and that is the one great tragedy of the 2011-12 Kentucky basketball season. There wasn’t much these Wildcats left undone: They tied the Division I record with 38 victories in a season, won the SEC regular-season title, reached the Final Four, won the NCAA title.
But they failed to convert the agnostics.
They did all they could, of course. Davis was so spectacular he swept every major award a college player can win: Freshman of the year, player of the year, defensive player of the year and most outstanding player of the Final Four. No one among the Wildcats averaged 10 shots a game. No one averaged 15 points. All six in the primary rotation averaged more than an assist per game.
These Wildcats played the game the way basketball purists dream for it to be played: Intelligently, fairly, aggressively and, now more than ever, selflessly.
Six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen once said, “Sometimes, a player’s greatest challenge is coming to grips with his role on the team.” Among the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, senior Darius Miller gave up a starting job because it made sense to bring his scoring ability off the bench; Davis refurnished his house with trophies despite taking the fourth-most shots among the Wildcats, and Jones took fewer 3-point shots because these loaded Wildcats didn’t need him to force offense.
“We tell them all the time: Be the teammate you want to play with,” Calipari said Tuesday night.
It was quite clear these Wildcats — though products of the summer basketball subculture so widely derided, carrying the recruiting rankings that supposedly warp one’s sensibilities, each of them ground daily through the mock drafts that distract so many college players — had listened to their coaches.
“During the season, it’s about our team. You saw it in this year’s team: They were about each other,” Calipari said. “When the season is over, it’s about moments like this.”
Tuesday night’s press conference was exactly the moment Kentucky’s critics had anticipated, and with contempt. It has been breathtaking to observe, in the aftermath of Kentucky’s championship, the intellectually dishonest dismissals of the Wildcats’ achievements, so many seizing upon the myth of this team rather than its reality.
In a New York Times piece that appeared just hours after the Wildcats triumphed in New Orleans, Ohio University professor David Ridpath called Kentucky’s method of constructing basketball teams “a complete façade” and posited, “Anyone who thinks that this has anything to do with the collegiate or educational model is flat-out wrong.”
Associated Press columnist Jim Litke declared the term “student-athlete” died at 11:42 p.m. ET on April 2, which was the moment Kentucky completed its victory over Kansas and claimed the school’s eighth NCAA championship.
In fact, the 2012 edition of Kentucky basketball wasn’t substantially different than many modern college teams. It was just better than all of them.
Its roster was not entirely composed of “one-and-dones.” Such players did not even form the majority of its playing rotation. There were three, we know now, following Tuesday evening’s press conference Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague. Two of the most important players in the drive to the title, though, were sophomores about whom it was conjectured a year earlier that their departure would come after a single season: Jones and Lamb. And Miller, one of the heroes of the semifinal win over Louisville, will graduate from UK this spring.
Kentucky actually got more from its senior class than Connecticut did a year ago, or Florida in 2006.
Kentucky had only one more “one-and-done” this season than Texas did in 2010-11 and precisely the same number as Ohio State in 2006-07, but it doesn’t seem anyone proclaimed the end of the world as we know it after the Buckeyes lost to Florida on an April night in Atlanta. And it’s quite obvious that the world did not end without warning, or we would not be here debating the Wildcats’ place in it.
So what is different about Calipari’s Kentucky, exactly? Is it that he makes it obvious his ambition is to get his players to the NBA, to the point he persistently provokes his own fans with proclamations that a successful draft night is more important to him than a deep NCAA Tournament run?
No doubt there are still some among the privileged who still attend college for the sake of being genuinely educated, to be able to have deep, intellectual discussions at wine-and-cheese parties about Proust and the Pythagorean Theorem. This is an alluring luxury available to a few, like investing in hedge funds or cruising the Bahamas on one’s own yacht.
Most of us who went to college, though, were there in pursuit of career training.
So the Kentucky players who announced they will depart short of earning their degrees are no different than the majority of their classmates, except that each of the Wildcats players leaves with a reasonable level of assurance there will be a job waiting for him in his chosen field.
That should be the measure of how Kentucky operates: Are its teams successful at the college level, and are its early entrants being drafted into the league and performing once there? In three Kentucky seasons, Calipari’s teams have reached the Elite Eight, the Final Four and the NCAA championship, in addition to winning either the SEC regular season or SEC Tournament each year.
To date, six of UK’s seven early entrants under Calipari were first-round selections. The only exception, guard DeAndre Liggins, was chosen in the second round last June and has spent the year as a deep reserve with the Orlando Magic. Guard Eric Bledsoe has not been spectacular in the league, but getting him positioned as a top-20 pick despite a modest prep pedigree seemed too great an achievement to risk in the spring of 2010. The rest, including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, mostly have done well.
In saying goodbye to his five underclassmen Tuesday, Calipari listed the basketball attributes of each, most of it reiterated from lectures along the NCAA Tournament trail. And then he said something for the first time, which isn’t something he gets to do often:
“I’m proud to say I was able to spend a year with them,” Calipari said.
And why wouldn’t he be?