UK basketball notebook: NCAA Tournament warps perspective

Herald-Leader Staff WriterMarch 30, 2013 

Now that we're at the business end of the NCAA Tournament, something Florida Coach Billy Donovan recently said to USA Today sticks in the mind.

"Your whole entire life, you're chasing this trophy, this crystal ball," he said of a national championship. "At the end of the day, it doesn't bring any value to your life. That's probably the biggest thing I've learned."

Of course, Florida won national championships in 2006 and 2007.

"There's an illusion ... that if you do this, you will be somebody. You'll be of significance. You'll be of importance ... ," Donovan said. "It's the biggest thing that destroys people's lives in a way."

In search of perspective, we turned to Marquette assistant Jerry Wainwright. Within a month or so in 2010, he suffered a broken leg when a player fell into him on the sideline, got fired as DePaul coach the next day and then learned he had prostate cancer. His mother-in-law died of cancer. A brother-in-law has the disease.

After being fired, Wainwright stayed involved in basketball the next year by attending team practices around the country and offering suggestions.

"All the young coaches are on the fast track," he said last weekend in Rupp Arena. "My regret is maybe I didn't take enough time to sit back and enjoy it.

"This job distorts perspective."

The NCAA Tournament acts as a fun-house mirror, accentuating the distortion. "It can make or take careers in a span of three weeks," Wainwright said.

Wainwright worked for one of his former assistants, Rodney Terry, at Fresno State last season. Then after deciding to return to his hometown of Chicago, in part, to watch a grandson play high school football, he got an offer from Marquette Coach Buzz Williams to be the program's Director of Basketball Operations.

"It was almost like I won the lottery," Wainwright said.

So why, at age 66, did Wainwright return to coaching?

"I didn't know how to be old," he said. "I wasn't depressed. I just felt something was missing."

Sitting outside the Marquette locker room prior to a practice in Rupp Arena, Wainwright spoke of the satisfaction that comes with teaching. Of a grateful player putting an arm over a coach's shoulder, he said, "That is a narcotic."

A few moments later, Wainwright ended the conversation. Marquette was about to head to the Rupp Arena court for practice. The next day's win or loss mattered. The process was incidental.

As he walked away, Wainwright shrugged and quoted The Godfather.

"As Don Corleone said, it is the life we chose."

Remembering Tubby

Minnesota's firing of Tubby Smith last week revived memories of his time as Kentucky coach (1997-2007).

"Very much a fatherly figure in our lives," said Jeff Sheppard, the star guard on UK's 1998 national championship team.

Sheppard said he's often asked to compare the two coaches he played for at Kentucky: Rick Pitino and Smith.

"Both were great motivators," he said. "Coach Pitino could motivate you (chuckle) with his words.

"Coach Smith didn't always do that. I was motivated out of a relationship. I didn't want to let him down. I'd do anything for him, and that's how I played my senior year."

Sheppard expressed his surprise that Minnesota fired Smith after the Gophers beat UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then lost a third-round game to Florida.

"There's not going to be that many coaches who win a game in the NCAA Tournament and then lose their jobs," Sheppard said. "That's the nature of the profession."

Minnesota will pay Smith a $2.5 million buyout, which reportedly grew by two-thirds when the school extended his contract last year.

There's been no word about whether Smith, who turns 62 in June, will continue to coach.

"I love him," Sheppard said, "and I'll be pulling for him no matter what he does."

'Death Star'

Columnist Dennis Berman of The Wall Street Journal attended the NCAA Tournament in Rupp Arena. This allowed him to write about the program conspicuous by its absence from March Madness: Kentucky. With six, and possibly seven (Andrew Wiggins?) McDonald's All-Americans arriving in 2013-14, UK figures to make amends for this season while continuing to be synonymous with so-called one-and-done players.

"They are building a new Death Star here in Lexington," Berman began the column published Monday. "By November, it will be fully operational, a University of Kentucky basketball team deploying the planet-annihilating skills of the single greatest recruiting class in the sport's 100-year history.

"Kentucky fans, of course, live in the perpetual future, that manic home of recruiting rankings and NBA mock drafts. Such are their appetites for success that they struggle simply being in the present. Especially this year ... "

Of course, that was in reference to Kentucky not receiving a NCAA Tournament bid this year, and how, by January, a noticeable amount of fan attention shifted to next season.

"If this is basketball brought to its cynical endpoint — a plug-and-play triumph of salesmanship — Kentucky fans don't seem to mind," Berman wrote.

He cited how UK touts its associations with Jay-Z and LeBron James (somehow he left out Drake). He cited the $3.1 million "locker room suite" in Rupp. He recalled Coach John Calipari calling the 2010 NBA Draft (five first-round picks from UK) as "the greatest day in Kentucky basketball history."

Berman, who grew up in Louisville, wrote about the contrast to the old-school method of building a team over several seasons. He ended the thought-provoking column as effectively as he began it.

"A new Death Star is forming on the horizon," he wrote. "Kentucky fans will never say it. But they know: It's hollow inside."

Locker room talk

During the NCAA Tournament here, National Public Radio's Mike Pesca did a report on how players from other teams talked about the UK locker room suite. The report included a clip from UK Coach John Calipari.

"Players have changed," Calipari said on a video tour of the suite earlier this season. "They don't like showering together. Don't know why. So we have individual showers."

Pesca also noted how the showerheads are seven feet above the floor.

Colorado State guard Wes Eikmeier told NPR that his team had a much more modest locker room back in Pueblo, Colo.

"We've got stains on our carpet," Eikmeier said. "We've got sliding name tags, kinda. And it's not very spacious, but it's helped us get this far."

Translation: A more spartan locker room helped feed the Rams' underdog mentality.

Name game

Reader Charles Hayes proposed a nickname for the UK team this season.

"The 2012-2013 Wildcats identity has been a mystery for many people but I have figured it out," he wrote in an email message.

"They were not The Fabulous Five

"They were not the Fiddlin Five

"They were not the Untouchables

"They were the Unentitled."

Hayes, who lives in London, said he's been a UK fan since Johnny Cox played. He's a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant and teacher.

Recruiting analyst

Florida Gulf Coast players went into the NCAA Tournament game against Florida with a chip on their shoulders. They go into every game that way, FGCU assistant coach Michael Fly said early last week.

"We have a bunch of guys who have no idea they're not supposed to be here," said Fly, a native of Fulton, Ky., and a 2006 UK graduate. "They all think they should have been recruited higher than they were."

For instance, FGCU's Brett Comer played on two Florida state championships with a more celebrated teammate, Austin Rivers. When FGCU played at Duke earlier this season, the students chanted, "You're not Austin."

Another Florida Gulf Coast player, Sherwood Brown, began his college career as a walk-on. He became the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year this season.

Underlying message: All the ratings of prospects are nice, but recruiting can be more art than science. There are no sure things, although the percentages support Kentucky's pursuit of the most highly-rated prospects each year.

'Decent consolation'

With apologies to C.M. Newton, playing in the NIT had to be a downer for mighty Kentucky. Guess what? That was true for Robert Morris, too.

The Colonials won the Northeast Conference regular-season championship. But a homecourt loss to Mount St. Mary's in the league tournament semifinals meant no NCAA Tournament bid.

"If you're in a one-bid league, the NIT is a decent consolation," Robert Morris Athletic Director Craig Coleman said.

Age is served

If UK plans to build a rallying cry around doubts about a freshman-oriented team winning a national championship, here's something to help the cause:

Last week columnist Dave Hyde of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel noted how veteran teams had done well in this year's NCAA Tournament.

"A year ago, Kentucky won the title with a roster of one-and-done freshmen to suggest the absurd way of the future," he wrote. "This year? Only one of the Rivals' top 10 freshmen recruits is still in the tournament, Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski. Meanwhile, older teams like Miami are thriving. The planets have aligned again."

Standings

Going into NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 play Thursday/Friday, here were the standings for all-time victories:

1. Kentucky 2111

2. Kansas 2101

3. North Carolina 2091

4. Duke 2000

Happy birthday

To Erik Daniels. The master of the arm fake turns 31 on Monday. ... To Saul Smith. The former UK point guard turned 34 on Thursday. ... To DeAndre Liggins. The former UK stopper turns 25 today. ... To Charles Hurt. The former UK forward turned 52 on Thursday. ... To Sean Woods. The former UK point guard/present Morehead State coach turned 43 on Friday.... To former UK assistant Ralph Willard. He turned 67 on Friday. ... To former UK forward Johnathan Davis. He turned 44 on Saturday. ... To former UK football coach Hal Mumme. He turned 61 on Friday. ... To former UK guard Chris Gettelfinger. He turns 55 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227.Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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