Columnists, Sports

Foul Shots: On Calipari

I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I hate the one-and-done rule in college basketball. I won’t rehash why, but here’s a quick summary: It sucks. There’s no plainer way to say it than that.

That being said, if the one-and-done rule exists, then it is only fair that someone finds out a way to exploit it. And not just to exploit it, but turn “student-athletes” into guns for hire and turn the University of Kentucky into an all-powerful one-year free agency destination for players on their way to greener pastures.

I’m sure everyone knows who I’m referring to. Coach John Calipari leads the Kentucky Wildcats, and over the past four NBA drafts his players have been first round draft picks eleven times. Three of his players: Derrick Rose in 2008, John Wall in 2010 and Anthony Davis in 2012 were the first overall draft pick.

Critics of Calipari seem to emerge out of the woodwork every November, as his freshman-heavy teams begin the season. These critics always say the same things: He’s not a great coach, just a good recruiter. He ruined the system of players progressing in college. He doesn’t really care about the players at all. He’s merely using them for his own glory. He’s overpaid, at $5.2 million a year. There are rumors that he knew about Derrick Rose’s academic issues all along — Rose didn’t even take his own SAT in high school.

But all of these naysayers have to look at Calipari’s track record and accept what’s staring us all in the face. The guy is a damn good coach. He’s led five teams to the Final Four, although two of them had their seasons vacated after the fact. But he also won the national title in 2012 with Kentucky.

It’s true that Calipari is a gifted recruiter. He consistently recruits the best class in the country. But it takes a great coach to mold a group of talented players into a coherent unit, especially when most of the players in question are 18 and 19 years old. Look at the New York Knicks. They’re a talented squad, but coach Mike Woodson is no Calipari.

Beyond Calipari’s coaching skill, critics have to realize that, whether they like it or not, his system works. Kentucky didn’t win the national title game on Monday night, but that doesn’t really matter for the point I’m trying to make. The Wildcats were a No. 8 seed. An eighth seed! Just to be in the championship game was a massive achievement for a team that, in the regular season, looked shaky and inconsistent at times. This is a team that lost to the University of South Carolina, for God’s sake.

You could say that Calipari made little difference in the NCAA Tournament. After all, freshman Aaron Harrison hit game-winning 3-pointers in consecutive games to get Kentucky to the final. If one of those shots rattles off of the rim, then Kentucky loses and Calipari’s critics have more ammunition than others. They would’ve said that his boys were too young and inexperienced to compete with more veteran teams. They would’ve lamented the lack of leadership from junior and senior players.

But I’m going to argue that Calipari gave Harrison the confidence he needed to take, and make, those shots. He treats his players like the future pros that he knows they are, not like underlings that should obey his all-knowing will.

NBA players that emerged from Calipari’s factory seem to be doing okay. Anthony Davis is, without a doubt, one of the top-10 basketball players in the world right now. Derrick Rose became the NBA’s youngest-ever MVP in 2011 (please come back, Derrick. I miss you). John Wall is one of the NBA’s best point guards. DeMarcus Cousins is learning to harness his considerable potential and control his anger, and is absolutely demolishing players many years his senior. Even Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, he of the broken jump shot, is a fearsome on-ball defender and an asset to a playoff-bound team.

It’ll probably turn out the exact same way for Calipari next year. He’ll have a stupendous recruiting class, with critics bleating about how players view the college game as a brief stop along their journey to wealth and fame. His team will struggle initially as they mature and learn how to play together. The critics will start hollering at the top of their lungs, informing us all that they told us so. And his team will rally, get hot at the exact time that they need to, and shock quite a lot of people in March.

We’ve seen this happen before. Do we really need any more convincing? John Calipari is a good coach. He’s a great coach. There’s no way around it, no matter how much college basketball “experts” would like to avoid admitting it.

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