In Defense of the UK Basketball System

There are certain notions that take on a life of their own after they’re said, over and over again, until they become accepted truth. One of those is the evil of the one-and-done: that it’s somehow bad for college sports and that Kentucky basketball depends entirely on it – in fact, promulgates it.

In a sports blog on The New York Times website discussing great sports upsets (it was called “When Goliath Loses”), someone wrote in to say:

“How about the Wisconsin Badger basketball team taking down the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA national semi-final two years ago? … Very few gave [Wisconsin] any chance against the one-and-done, McDonald’s-All-American-loaded, ‘student athlete’ Kentucky team.”

So that’s it. One-and-done is the presumed rot in college basketball, and Kentucky prospers by hiring mercenaries that are more athlete than student.

Okay, how about some truth-telling?

That Kentucky team indeed had some outstanding freshmen, three of whom – Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker – turned pro after the season.

The Cats also had a collection of juniors and sophomores who played a major role in the team’s successful season – Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress (until he was hurt).

And Kentucky had a significant freshman on that team who did not turn pro – Tyler Ulis. In fact, Ulis was joined the following season by a number of other returnees from that 38-1 Final Four team: Poythress (a senior) and Marcus Lee, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins (all juniors).

Jay Bilas’ observations about that Kentucky team simply cannot be quoted often enough. Bilas said, with some paraphrasing on my part, that he couldn’t understand why this team was so vilified. It should be seen, in fact, as the ideal in college sports: 10 wonderful athletes willing to sacrifice playing time and individual statistics for the good of the team.

In John Calipari’s seven completed seasons at Kentucky, there have been elements of that unselfishness and team motivation throughout. Anthony Davis never achieved, nor even seemed to seek, the shots and points that normally go with stardom.

It’s been well documented that three members of that team – Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Marques Teague – took more shots during the season than Davis’ eight per game. And while Davis’ 14.2 scoring average led the team, a remarkable demonstration of efficiency, it was far less than most other All-Americans who go on to become the first pick of the NBA draft.

Davis was college basketball’s Player of the Year, yet nobody could ever say that his motivation was purely about building up his own individual profile.

In fact, while Davis was one in a long line of outstanding big men in Calipari’s UK era, the coach first earned his reputation for developing point guards, starting with Derek Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis. Point guard: the ultimate position in team play, setting other shooters up, distributing the ball, racking up assists.

And, at Kentucky, the Calipari string continued, almost uninterrupted, from John Wall to Brandon Knight to Teague to Harrison to Ulis, the poster child for smart, see-the-court-and-make-your-teammates-thrive basketball. (Next up: De’Aaron Fox?)

Shame on Calipari for harboring such selfish, it’s-all-about-me athletes.

Furthermore, the argument rages on whether one-and-done is really the college basketball evil it’s so often perpetrated as being. I come from another era, when both college and professional sports teams counted on a certain long-term continuity. The NCAA’s changing rules have rendered that nearly as much a relic of the 20th century as typewriters, videocassettes and phone booths.

Critics of college sports have had a field day railing at the hypocrisy of even calling these athletes “students.” (Though there’s evidence that the old compact between colleges and the athletes who stayed on campus for four years was no less hypocritical.)

But the athletes, for the most part, have thrived in the system. College sports has become their undergraduate major in preparation for a successful post-graduate career, which is one of all colleges’ primary purposes.

And at Kentucky, many of these young men who majored in Professor Calipari’s undergraduate seminar on “Basketball as a Career” have succeeded in their professional lives.

Last October, there were five ex-Wildcats from that Wisconsin game on the NBA’s opening-day rosters earning sizable NBA paychecks. Those five played a total of 325 games their rookie seasons.

There were three players from that Wisconsin team. They played a total of 85 games.

Wisconsin players may have won that game. But which players won the future? VT