Here’s a sentence you probably never expected to read: A college basketball program’s dependence on one-and-done players drew harsh criticism, which no doubt brought a smile to John Calipari’s face.
Of course, opinion of the one-and-done player usually makes Calipari feel like a piñata. Critics have said for years that a Kentucky program he built and sustains with NBA-bound freshmen mocks the idea of student-athletes pursuing a college education. It reduces Kentucky basketball to a mere way station and makes the Wildcats a glorified AAU team.
Surely adding to Calipari’s chagrin, Duke uses much the same formula, yet escapes similar ridicule.
Until Aug. 20. That’s when Phil Mushnick, a take-no-prisoners columnist for the New York Post, called out this double standard. The inspiration was Marvin Bagley III, a 6-foot-11 prospect who committed to Duke this summer.
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Bagley’s background — he attended three high schools in two states (Arizona and California), then reclassified to the class of 2017 — gave Mushnick added reason to question the college basketball ethos. He called it “racketeering” with the schools serving as a false front for athletics.
“Given that it’s Duke, we’re supposed to regard Bagley as a legitimate, Duke-qualified, full-scholarship student-athlete who meets with Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s heralded high standards . . . ,” Mushnick wrote. “Imagine what those desensitized, TV-celebrated ‘Cameron Crazies’ would do to Bagley if he played for UNC, North Carolina State or Kentucky. They’d mob-trash him as a one-and-done rent-a-star.”
UK recruited Bagley for several years. Calipari and assistant coaches watched him at Nike events as recently as July. His final six schools were Duke, UK, Arizona, Kansas, UCLA and Southern Cal.
No doubt family roots in Durham, N.C., helped Duke win the recruiting competition. Bagley’s father graduated from Durham High School. A grandmother still lives there.
How good is Bagley? After he chose Duke, the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas improved the Blue Devils’ odds of winning the 2018 national championship from 7-1 to 3-1. The odds of the championship “coming home to Kentucky,” as Tom Leach would say, lengthened from 7-1 to 8-1.
Recent NBA Drafts suggest there’s not much difference between the approaches used by Kentucky and Duke.
Since Calipari became coach, Kentucky has had 21 freshmen drafted in the first round. Duke has had nine.
But after Kentucky established one-and-done players as a formula for success, there’s a much smaller difference. In the last four NBA Drafts, 10 UK freshmen were picked in the first round. In that time, seven Duke freshmen were picked in the first round (and Frank Jackson was taken with the first pick of the second round this year).
Yet Kentucky is seen as using an audacious do-anything-to-win approach. Meanwhile, Duke represents good and “succeeds where Don Quixote and Pollyanna failed,” Mushnick wrote with sarcastic flair.
Jerry Meyer of the 247 recruiting service saw no difference in how Kentucky and Duke go about basketball business. “They’re doing the exact same thing,” he said. “What they’re recruiting are the best players they can possibly get.”
Meyer offered three possible reasons for the difference in how UK and Duke are perceived in the one-and-done context:
1. Krzyzewski is more highly respected, if not above reproach, because he’s won five national championships at Duke and led the U.S. team to three Olympic gold medals.
2. Calipari drew criticism because he was the first coach to rely on one-and-done players, and it took time to accept the idea of one-season college “careers.”
3. Calipari’s reputation suffered when the NCAA ordered Final Four appearances by his teams in 1996 and 2008 vacated from official records. He became an easy target. “That might be a factor in it,” Meyer said.
Seth Davis, Duke graduate and longtime reporter on the college basketball beat, said Calipari deserved credit, not scorn, for how he returned Kentucky to elite status.
“He acknowledged and embraced reality,” Davis said of this one-and-done era. “He didn’t create this. He’s just the smartest guy.
“I liken it to Rick Pitino when he embraced the three-point line. All these college coaches hated the three-point line. And Rick Pitino did the math, and said ‘I’m at little Providence College with slow, white Billy Donovan. And this three-point line, I’m going to embrace it and use it. I didn’t put it there. But as long as it’s there, I’m going to go all in on it.’ And it put a team in the Final Four that had no business being in the Final Four.”
Calipari had similar foresight to embrace the reality of one-and-done players.
“Really be on the cutting edge in terms of how he markets his program,” Davis said. “And he’s told (recruits), ‘If your goal is to get to the NBA as soon as possible, we are the place for you.’ It’s worked out pretty well.”
Krzyzewski probably makes a similar appeal while also touting Duke’s reputation as a prestigious university, Davis said.
For those who think Duke is following Kentucky’s lead, there’s this: Duke held a fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey relief on Saturday morning. Fans were asked to make a minimum $10 donation to attend the event in Cameron Indoor Stadium. It came six days after UK’s Teaming Up For Texas telethon.
Calipari and Duke have a history. Before a game in 2012, Calipari said Duke defenders would be fined for flopping if they played in the NBA. After the game, he said he was kidding. A few years later, he complained about Krzyzewski gaining a recruiting advantage by being the USA Olympic coach. When this became public knowledge, he did a remarkable verbal U-turn and saluted Krzyzewski for sacrificing recruiting time in order to serve the country.
During last year’s Southeastern Conference Media Day, Calipari mentioned Duke after acknowledging how Kentucky’s reliance on one-and-done players drew criticism.
“When did it become OK?” Calipari asked his note-taking audience. A reporter offered, when Duke did it. And the UK coach said, “There you go. Then it was OK. Every one of you, as soon as Duke did it, it was OK. That’s fine with me because here’s what they proved. Duke. North Carolina. Kansas. You can be about these kids, and it’d be OK. And it’s not going to hurt you as a coach. It’s not going to hurt your program. So I’m happy it happened.”
Speaking of happy, Mushnick’s criticism of Duke and an educated guess at Calipari’s reaction brought to mind the term schadenfreude. That is the German word for getting pleasure from someone else’s misfortune.
Kentucky’s schedule for 2017-18, which was announced late last month, did not impress reader Tom Atkinson. He regularly shares his thoughts, this time hitting a familiar theme by suggesting the UK schedule was a tad light on competitive home games.
“I believe the ticket holders are being short-changed for the increasing ticket prices,” he wrote in an email. Louisville and Virginia Tech are the non-conference opponents with the largest basketball profile.
Non-conference opponents away from Rupp Arena include Kansas (Chicago), UCLA (New Orleans) and at West Virginia.
Judging by preseason expectations, the SEC home schedule will be good. All the expected top teams come to Rupp Arena: Alabama, Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M.
Counting the SEC portion of the schedule, eight games will be against opponents who had a final Ratings Percentage Index in the top 30 last season. Two of those games will be in Rupp Arena: Florida (No. 8) and Louisville (No. 11).
“After seeing that fantastic non-conference schedule, especially the Adolph Rupp Whatever, it seems The Great One is on a mission to gather as many worthless wins as possible,” Atkinson wrote.
“But since we aren’t really in the championship-seeking business anymore, heck, let’s play Sullivan Business College, too.”
A clarification: “The Great One” was a sarcastic reference to UK Coach John Calipari, Atkinson confirmed in a follow-up email.
Another clarification: The Adolph Rupp Classic will have East Tennessee State, Troy, Fort Wayne and UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) joining UK. Those opponents filling out the Adolph Rupp Classic field had a combined record of 86-54 and final average RPI of 154 last season. Athlon picks UIC to finish second in the Horizon League, East Tennessee sixth in the Southern, Troy sixth in the Sun Belt and Fort Wayne fifth in the Summit.
Tawanda Owsley, executive director of the Bluegrass Chapter of the American Red Cross, expressed thanks for last weekend’s Teaming Up For Texas telethon. The event generated more than $1 million, which will be used for hurricane relief in Texas.
“We’re just overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude,” Owsley said.
UK Coach John Calipari said at the telethon that he planned to travel to a shelter on the following Sunday (today) to see how the donations were helping lives in the Houston area.
Barring a change of plans, Kentucky’s annual Pro Day or, if you prefer, the UK Combine, will be Oct. 8.
The Pro Day/UK Combine features Kentucky players going through a staged practice as NBA personnel sit courtside and observe. Presumably, one of the ESPN stations will televise.
To Oak Hill Academy Coach (and Asbury grad) Steve Smith. He turned 62 on Thursday. … To former Ole Miss Coach Rob Evans. He turned 71 on Thursday. … To longtime SEC referee John Clougherty. He turns 74 on Sunday (today). … To Mark Pope. He turns 45 on Monday. … To Billy Evans. He turns 85 on Wednesday.