Kentucky playing through persona non grata status
No, Kentucky, you don’t have social anxiety disorder.
The powers that be really don’t want you here. If there was any doubt, Sunday’s news conference held by NCAA president Mark Emmert, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and a handful of university presidents removed it.
College basketball’s message to Kentucky is clear: You can stock your team with all the "one-and-dones" you want, but we don’t have to like it.
"[The current one-and-done rule] is enshrined in the labor agreement between the NBA and the NBA players and not a rule that we have control over," Emmert said. "I’ve been pretty vocal in opposition to that notion. I think everybody here knows my position on it."
John Calipari has pitched his tent firmly in the one-and-done camp, employing the revolutionary strategy — Why didn’t I think of this first? — of stocking his team with future NBA players, even if the overwhelming majority will play at Kentucky just the one mandated season before jumping for the riches of the NBA.
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement signed in 2005 mandated that players be 19 in the calendar year of the draft, meaning players like Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis had to make pit stops in the college game before moving onto pro stardom and million-dollar advertising contracts.
Calipari benefited, coming within one Mario Chalmers heave of winning a title with Rose at Memphis in 2008 and capturing his first ring in 2012 with Davis’ 7-foot, 5-inch wingspan dominating the paint on both sides of the court.
Kentucky has had 17 players drafted in just five years under Calipari. Only four of those were selected after the first round.
This year, Calipari’s starting lineup consists of 5/8s of what was widely considered the greatest recruiting class ever. His best player, Dallas native Julius Randle, is a likely top 10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison could both be first-rounders, as well.
But don’t be surprised if you see pursed lips and furrowed brows on the faces of NCAA suits watching the Wildcats suit up in Monday’s national title game.
"Every president I know and every conference I know is pretty adamantly opposed to one-and-dones and hopes that the NBA and the NBA Players Association will make some changes to something more in the model of what baseball is," said Nathan Hatch, the president of Wake Forest and the chair of the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors.
Major League baseball teams can draft high school players, but if they elect to go to college, they can’t be drafted until their junior years.
Bowlsby implied the NBA is at fault for not giving players like Randle and the Harrisons a place to hone their games but was careful not to sully the paradise of purity and academic oasis that is NCAA basketball. He wasn’t alone among administrators gritting their teeth and admitting that Calipari has built his program — this year’s anyway — within the rules set by the game’s governing body.
"We all agree. My business, what I do, is to try to prepare young people for a future," said Michael Drake, the chancellor at the University of California, Irvine and a member of the Division I Steering Committee on Governance. "We have a four-year degree because we believe it takes that much time to mature and to get those life skills to go out and have the 60 years that follow college and to be able to be a contributing member and leader in your society and community."
Though Calipari has lauded the hospitality in Dallas this week for his team, Sunday’s press conference made it clear the NCAA isn’t exactly rolling out the welcome wagon for a team full of players who probably didn’t pick Kentucky because of its stellar engineering program.
"I have a strong theory [as to the source of the lack of enthusiasm for Kentucky’s presence here], but I’m not trying to say it in the media," said sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who will sit out Monday’s game with an ankle injury suffered against Louisville earlier in the tournament. "No doubt [people don’t like how this program is run]. That’s definitely what we thought when we [were] an 8-seed. There’s a reason why they do it. They don’t like how we run things at Kentucky. It really is us against the world."
Randle admitted earlier this week he knew people didn’t want Kentucky on college basketball’s biggest stage, but who knew Sunday would so explicitly legitimize Randle’s belief?
He’s been clear with the reason he came to Kentucky: Calipari’s skill for preparing players for the NBA drew him to the program.
"If he wanted to go to the next level, Cal was one of the top coaches who could get him there," Randle’s mother, Carolyn Kyles, told Fox Sports Southwest this week.
Calipari made headlines this week suggesting "succeed-and-proceed" replace the loaded "one-and-done" term for what’s essentially a loophole in the NCAA’s ultimate mission.
Succeed and proceed sounds a lot more like what Kentucky has done in the tournament, after being lambasted nationally following losses in three of five games and falling out of the polls at 21-8 in late February and early March.
"My whole thing is I’m coaching the hand that’s dealt. I’m making sure it’s about these young men up here," Calipari said. "I’m not trying to make this about me or the program and staying or leaving because of those things. This is what we have. We got a bunch of young kids trying to do this. I’m proud of them and know that I don’t have all the answers."
The NCAA’s slow crawl of non-change proves it lacks answers, too, but Monday, Kentucky will trot on the court with a team of future pros who will almost all leave Kentucky without a degree.
Sure, it’s not ideal.
There’s also nothing the panel of educators who spent Sunday blasting the foundation of Calipari’s program can do about it.
"l don’t think it’s good for that institution, I don’t think it’s good for college athletics in general," Bowlsby said. "Institutions make local decisions on those kinds of things and as long as they’re complying with the rules that we currently have in place on those things, then that’s their prerogative."