Here’s a declarative sentence you’ll hardly ever hear spoken by a coach: “I was wrong.”
Here’s the context for a coach we’re all familiar with saying just that: An ongoing FBI investigation into college basketball has led to speculation about significant reform. NCAA President Mark Emmert said there needs to be “substantive changes” in the sport. A month ago he formed a committee to look into how to fix college basketball. Its chair is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
More than once, UK Coach John Calipari has voiced concern that a reform movement, however well intended, might blunt progress already made.
For instance, Calipari has offered something of a mea culpa about his initial opposition to the NCAA adopting higher academic standards for eligibility.
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“They were right and I was wrong,” Calipari said at SEC media day last month. “They raised those standards and kids met those standards. We had the highest graduation rate in college basketball history. Highest graduation rate of African-Americans in college basketball in its history.”
There is speculation about permitting players to once again enter the NBA Draft out of high school. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett did this.
Last month, Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland spoke confidently about this happening. “I think things are going to change,” he said. “That’s pretty clear.”
In this scenario, the educational progress made through higher academic standards would be diluted by allowing players to skip college and try to make their way to the NBA through the development league.
“Now, you say let’s throw that out, all we’ve worked for (regarding) academics to tell a kid you can go to the (G League) or college,” Calipari said. “Well, raise your hand if you’d go to the (G League, given that choice). I would have.
“There are going to be unintended consequences if we don’t think of these kids. . . . To have a kid out of high school, on his own, getting up on his own when mom was getting him up every single day.”
Calipari suggested UK’s Lifetime Scholarship program presents something of a best-of-both-worlds option: play college basketball and eventually get an education.
To further bolster the argument for going to college, Calipari also said that only 5 percent of G League players make the NBA. “What do we do with the ones that don’t make it?” he said. “Tell me.”
(A check with the NBA revealed that about 340 players were in the G League under G-League contracts last season. Of those 340 players, 38 went on to play in the NBA last season. That’s about 11 percent. And that number does not include players who played in the G League last season and are on NBA rosters this season. Alfonzo McKinnie of the Toronto Raptors is one such player.)
The players and their futures should be the top priority, Calipari said. “Doesn’t mean you treat every kid the same,” he said. “But be fair.”
A cynic might say Calipari is trying to protect what’s working for Kentucky. Reliance on one-and-done players has worked for UK. But as Calipari has said on several occasions, Kentucky will prosper no matter what rules govern college basketball.
As for programs that object to one-and-done players, the UK coach offered this suggestion: “Then don’t recruit these kids.”
At SEC media day, Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy voiced reservations about the concept of one-and-done players. He said he supports allowing players to turn pro out of high school.
“I’ve always been a proponent of opportunity and so if a kid is able to go out of high school, I’d be in favor of that,” Kennedy said. “I think the one-and-done is problematic on a number of fronts. The academic principle of it is questionable at times. So I think there needs to be dialogue and I think there is.”
Kennedy reminded reporters that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had questioned the so-called one-and-done rule prior to news of the FBI investigation of college basketball.
“Because he sees it as not in the best interest of his product,” Kennedy said of Silver’s concerns about one-and-done players. “Also there needs to be a maturation process.”
Talent vs. experience
The recurring theme of talent versus experience may get a workout when Kentucky plays at Arkansas on Feb. 20. An obvious story line will be UK’s talent versus the Hogs’ experience.
One of Arkansas’ six seniors, guard Daryl Macon, cited talent when asked about Kentucky at SEC media day.
“Kentucky brings in a lot of talent,” he said. “I think they probably have an average of about five or six (high school) All-Americans every year. They’re very good at recruiting. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball and we’ve all got to go out there and play and give it your all.
“Kentucky’s a great team. There are a lot of great teams this year.”
Experience is a factor, Macon said.
“In this league, I think experience means a lot,” he said. “Because there are times in the season or in a game where you might get down, and having experienced guys helps. As an old guy, you can tell younger guys, ‘This is a game of runs. Don’t get down.’”
The original hope was that tipping off a season with many games on a single date would be a good way to market college basketball. Friday was that day, with Kentucky playing its part with a game against Utah Valley.
Then the FBI got in the way.
While it seems an ongoing FBI investigation overshadows the new season, ESPN commentators Jay Bilas and Tom Crean suggested just the opposite: the return of games, particularly compelling games, will move the FBI to the background.
Said Bilas of the FBI investigation: “Once we get to the games, I think it moves a little bit more to the back seat.”
Crean cited one early-season game as capable of moving the FBI to the background: Kentucky vs. Kansas on Tuesday.
“Devonté Graham played over 3,000 minutes in college basketball,” he said of the Kansas senior guard. “And he’s going to be matching up with people that have played maybe one or two games by that point. I mean, there’s some fun to that, watching the intrigue of that and being able to see how that transpires.”
‘Turned the corner’
During a joint teleconference, Jay Bilas and Tom Crean touted the quality of SEC basketball this season.
“I think this is going to be a great year in the Southeastern Conference,” Bilas said. “I think the league has turned the corner and is now back to what it used to be where you get more than a couple of teams that are nationally capable.”
Florida can be just as good, “if not better,” than its Elite Eight team of last season, Bilas said.
Crean spoke of Ole Miss being undervalued. “Don’t be shocked when the Sweet 16 rolls around and Ole Miss is in it,” he said. “I mean, they have veteran players. They have ‘bigs.’ They have guards. They have scoring. They have experience. You can really go right on down the line with that inside of that league.”
If true, that’s not reassuring for younger-than-ever Kentucky.
“That’s a formidable league when you go on the road,” Bilas said. “It will again punish youth. Kentucky has got to grow up in a hurry.”
Ranting as therapy
With a liberal dose of laughter, UK fan Alan Bohanon called to complain that the exhibition game against Morehead State was not televised.
Bohanon, a retired teacher living in Campbellsville, said he knew the game was for charity. So to televise the action might reduce the number of people buying tickets.
“But it is fun to rant,” he said. “It keeps me from ulcers.”
As a peace offering, Bohanon offered two attempts at humor.
1. “You can’t trust atoms. They make up everything.”
2. “What’s in a honeymoon salad? Lettuce alone.”
To Dwight Perry. He turned 30 on Thursday. … To Brad Calipari. He turned 21 on Saturday. … To Jason Lathrem. He turns 41 on Sunday (today). … To A.J. Stewart. He turns 29 on Tuesday. … To Twany Beckham. He turns 29 on Tuesday. … To Jared Prickett. He turns 44 on Tuesday. … To Charles Matthews. He turns 21 on Wednesday. … To former Auburn coach Sonny Smith. He turns 81 on Wednesday. … To Clarence Tillman. He turns 57 on Wednesday. … To Karl-Anthony Towns. He turns 22 Wednesday.
Vermont at Kentucky
When: 3:30 p.m.
Records: Vermont 0-0, Kentucky 1-0
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Series: First meeting