I never thought I would find myself saying this, and furthermore believing it, but poor, poor John Calipari. He deserves better. Not better recruits, or point guard play (maybe point guard play) or media exposure, as ESPN’s Kentucky: All Access may as well be titled “The John Calipari Recruiting Workaround Hour” but I do feel slightly sorry for Calipari and his ‘Cats this year. They deserve better treatment from us.
John Calipari has created a beast. It started with Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose’s Memphis teams, and it has grown to leviathan proportions at Kentucky. Last season’s national championship wasn’t seen necessarily as the culmination of a half decade of elbow grease on the recruiting trail and in the practice gym, but a mastery of college basketball through questionable recruiting pitch, and turning Kentucky into a fast-track NBA first round pick haven. Calipari was, through fair and foul means, gaming the system created by the NBA’s rule requiring one year of “college.” In doing so, Calipari was building a basketball program on a higher plane of existence, one that would win a national championship, shuttle their stars into the lottery, and simply hit the reset button; title, rinse, repeat.
That’s what we expected, anyway. So when Kentucky free-fell out of the rankings after losses to two decent teams (Notre Dame and Baylor) last week, what should have been a scathing indictment of preseason polls became a week-long debate about ”what’s wrong with Kentucky?” A team that had been ranked 8th was now unworthy of our votes, and it is hard to tell what was a bigger overreaction, whether Kentucky was dropped from the rankings, or whether or not they deserved to be that high in the first place. The reality of the situation rests somewhere in between (as does Kentucky’s deserved place in the rankings, somewhere from 15-25?) but these days, when you play at Kentucky, your reality is already created for you. Are you a hotshot freshman? No, you are Anthony Davis re-incarnate. Are you a good basketball team? No, you are a great basketball team, or you are nothing. These are the expectations that we, the sporting public, have foisted onto the Wildcats, and they can’t possibly be expected to meet them.
Maybe because we saw the names roll in for Kentucky throughout the recruiting season. Four players, all top ten at their position, rolled in to replace the three freshmen and two sophomores that stylishly led Calipari and the ‘Cats to the NCAA title in March. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin would have been a recruiting coup for every school, but when Kentucky added consensus number one recruit Nerlens Noel to the mix, we were all ready to hand Kentucky another final four appearance (or better) before the season began.
Those expectations, however were based not on this seasons’ Kentucky team, but the 2011-12 vintage, which is patently unfair to Cauley-Stein, Poythress, Goodwin and Noel. Kentucky’s 2011 recruiting class ranks as the equal or better of Michigan’s Fab Five. Even adjusting for post-internet information age hype inflation, Kentucky’s 2011 kids may not have reached Fab Five level upon their arrival in Lexington, but they were a better team wire-to-wire. Remember, the Fab Five went 25-9 in the regular season and entered the NCAA tournament as a six seed. Kentucky’s bunch rolled through a one-loss regular season and entered the tournament as the clear, deserved, favorite. They boasted a player who invoked seemingly realistic comparisons to Bill Russell in Anthony Davis, and perhaps the best team-basketball freshman you’ll ever watch play in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The team was so good, it counted perhaps the most purely talented player in the lineup, sophomore Terrance Jones, as its fifth-best player.
So when the banner went up and the Championship ’Cats went pro, we turned our attention to the next crop of greats that John Calipari had rounded up, because that’s what Calipari does, and we didn’t see the players they were, we just wanted to see the players they were replacing. We didn’t want to see Alex Poythress for his game, we just wanted to see if he could be Kidd-Gilchrist, or Jones, or, gulp, both. We didn’t want to see Nerlens Noel’s retro Kid n’ Play high-top fade, we wanted to see Anthony Davis’ unibrow.
Strip away the comparisons, and what you will find at Kentucky is, wait for it…a normal basketball team. Noel, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Goodwin are good players, but they are just freshman trying to figure out what they can do. Beyond them, you’ll find Kyle Wiltjer, the least heralded of last year’s freshman and the only one still around. A good player, but not a world beater. Farther down, you find two transfers from less pedigreed programs, Ryan Harrow (N.C. St.) and Julius Mays (Wright St.). Of course much has been made of Harrow’s poor play at the point guard spot and his subsequent illness and absence, with many chalking his struggles up to the pressure of replacing Calipari’s former point guards; Rose, Knight and Teague. Perhaps Harrow’s strange condition is the only tangible evidence that we have that this Kentucky crop isn’t ready for the big time.
And shame on us for expecting them to be. Kentucky’s “failure” in the early part of this season is less a story of Kentucky players and more a story of the fans and media who stand outside their fishbowl. We built the Kentucky beast by expecting Calipari to do something twice in two seasons when it had never been done before, and when they couldn’t do it, we left them for dead.
So let Kentucky live, whether you hate them or not. Let them be average for now, and perhaps they will grow into the greatness that their recruits theoretically possess. And if they fail? Perhaps some of them will stay in school for a sophomore year, in which case Kentucky may be set up for another title run in 2014. For next year’s recruiting class includes the highly touted Harrison twins, as well as fellow top-100 recruits James Young and Marcus Lee. And after all, don’t great recruiting classes equal great teams?
If you answered yes, please re-read this article.