John Clay: College basketball's recruiting hype obscuring truth about experience

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 16, 2014 

This isn't Kentucky's year.

You know why this isn't Kentucky's year?

It's because Kentucky got caught on the wrong side of history. In a year that was supposed to be all about remarkable recruits and fabulous freshmen, this has turned into the year when old guys rule.

We're not just talking about Florida, whose four solid seniors formed a fruitful collaboration that helped the Gators score on their final 13 possessions Saturday night — how's that for killing it at crunch-time? — to pull out a 69-59 victory over Kentucky in Rupp Arena.

Who's the leading candidate for player of the year in college basketball? Most people say it's Creighton forward and super-scorer Doug McDermott. He's a senior.

Who's the star player on the nation's No. 1-ranked team? That would be Syracuse's steady C.J. Fair. He's a senior.

Who's the leading scorer on the team that joins Syracuse as the nation's two remaining unbeaten squads? That would be Wichita State's Cleanthony Early. He's a senior.

Who has led Steve Fisher and San Diego State to an unlikely top-five ranking? That would be Xavier Thames, a guard who might be just as good on defense as he is on offense, and he's plenty good on offense. He's a senior.

Michigan State has seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Cincinnati's trio of seniors, led by Sean Kilpatrick, have taken the Bearcats to the top of the American Athletic Conference standings. Louisville's hopes of repeating as NCAA champions are riding on the back of senior guard Russ Smith.

Kentucky starts five freshmen. Only these were not supposed to be your ordinary, everyday freshmen. These freshmen were supposed to constitute possibly the greatest recruiting class of all time, one gifted enough to overcome that tired old "experience matters" cliché.

Part of that reasoning had to do with the state of college basketball as a whole. The one-and-dones and early exits had diminished the game's skill level. The players who were still in college were obviously not good enough to play in the NBA and therefore not good enough to handle the wave of fresh young faces entering the game.

You have to wonder now whether we weren't all sold a bill of goods by the star-maker machinery that is the swelling popularity of the recruiting services.

The fans' incessant appetite for recruiting information and rankings has turned a sideline into a full-fledged industry running on hope and hype — lots and lots of hype.

Catch-phrases such as "the greatest since" or "the next big thing" or "reminds you of" are such annual occurrences that they have lost their meaning.

Saturday night felt like a defining moment in that regard. True, Kentucky's young guns had five losses and really only one impressive win (Louisville) on their résumé, but surely the glitz and glamour of ESPN's GameDay, coupled with the intensity of the "Big Game" Rupp crowd, would cause the Cats to finally rise and meet the moment.

Instead, it felt like the moment — a senior moment — when we have returned to the game's roots, where experience and senior leadership matter more than the star rankings.

By the way, coming out of high school in Gainesville, Florida's Scottie Wilbekin was a two-star prospect. On Saturday night, he was the star, controlling the action, setting up the Florida offense, making big plays.

Before the Cats and Gators took to the hardwood, the player of the day on Saturday was Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, who scored 34 points to help the Huskies win, 86-81, in overtime at Memphis.

Napier is a senior.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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