Watching ESPNU's telecast of Kentucky's NBA Combine on Friday, fairness got taken to the hoop, dunked on and generally treated like a no-star prospect with bad knees.
The telecast's ever-present tone: Kentucky is Kentucky, so too bad if your team doesn't have nine McDonald's All-Americans and, therefore, the leverage to orchestrate what amounted to a two-hour infomercial.
College basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who served as master of ceremonies among ESPNU's five on-air participants, belittled the very idea of fairness. While acknowledging that some might see Kentucky gaining a marked advantage from ESPNU's rhapsodic telecast of the Combine, he said such criticism sprung from a "third-grade mentality." And, in case the viewers missed the point, he mimicked such thinking by adding in a whiny voice, "It's not fair. It's not fair."
Yet, it was only a few weeks ago that we learned that UK Coach John Calipari brought up the issue of fairness. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim revealed that Calipari had complained more than once last summer about Mike Krzyzewski gaining an advantage for Duke by being Team USA coach. (Boeheim scoffed at the notion, but didn't call it childish.)
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The Southeastern Conference seeks some measure of fairness. Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth noted that the SEC wants exposure for all 14 member schools when negotiating television contracts. The spread-the-wealth guidelines include requiring each school to get at least one home game on ESPN or ESPN2 every two seasons and the guarantee that every conference game is on one of the ESPN "platforms:" ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the SEC Network. CBS is also required to televise all 14 league teams, albeit over a longer period of time, Whitworth said.
In sports vernacular, fairness is known as a level playing field. ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg noted the inescapable advantages and disadvantages tied to each college basketball team; Kentucky's national championship tradition and, more recently, its pipeline to the NBA; Krzyzewski's coaching résumé at Duke; Michael Jordan as iconic former North Carolina player, for instance.
"Everyone does what's in their best interest," the former Virginia Tech coach said on the telecast. "That's how this world works. Not everyone is a 'have.' There's some 'have-nots.' Kentucky just happens to be a 'have.'"
Auburn's first-year coach, Bruce Pearl, set the standard for program promotion when he was Tennessee's coach (2005-2011). He said last week that he had no problem with what he called the "huge advantage" that went with ESPNU televising Kentucky's practice. He suggested a level playing field was not only unreachable, but undesirable.
"We should live in a country where everything doesn't have to be a level playing field," he said. "I mean, Kentucky is one of the best basketball programs in the SEC and one of the top — what? — two or three basketball programs in the country, period. They've got the biggest arena. They've got the greatest fan base. They've got the best players. They've got the best coach. They've got it all.
"Kentucky is different. It's uniquely different. And Cal does a great job of taking advantage of those differences."
Pearl added that the onus is on other SEC programs to join "Florida and Kentucky" as annual participants in the NCAA Tournament. "That's where the work needs to be done," he said.
Dan Margulis, ESPN's senior director for college sports programming, paused when asked if ESPN might be over-publicizing Kentucky at the expense of fairness. "It's a good question," he said.
In the last three years, UK has been the subject of an All-Access show (remember cinema verite in 2011?), a Feb. 15, 2012 practice on ESPNU, the six exhibition games in the Bahamas last August to launch the SEC Network and then the Combine.
Margulis noted how Kentucky won the 2012 national championship, reached the 2014 finals and now goes into the coming season with perhaps an unprecedented collection of talent.
"Perhaps it's a chicken-and-egg thing," he said. "But we're obviously going to provide even more coverage to the teams that are successful. That's just the nature of how we serve the college sports fan. ...
"Yes, it's nice to have a level playing field. But in reality, it isn't. So how do we cover what people want and what people are interested in, and at the same time grow other programs where it makes sense, where they're starting to show some national or intense-level interest?"
Hitting on the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats theme, Pearl echoed a familiar theme by suggesting that what benefits Kentucky benefits the SEC. This thinking suggests that reflected glorification of Kentucky helps other SEC programs shine.
"I hope during the course of the practice, they talk about Kentucky," he said Thursday of the Combine telecast, "and they talk a little of the SEC."
They talked about Kentucky. They didn't talk — even a little — about the SEC.
In its Saturday edition, The New York Times reviewed the ESPNU telecast of Kentucky's Combine Friday. The lukewarm review all but suggested the show be taken off-, off-Broadway and re-tooled.
"It was not terribly exciting for anyone but devoted Kentucky fans or college basketball junkies, who probably make up a lot of the ESPNU audience," wrote Richard Sandomir, who covers sports media for The Times. "For the rest of us? Eh, not so much."
Sandomir called UK's Combine "a lesson in marketing" for both the basketball program and "the ESPN college sports machine."
Sandomir lamented that ESPNU did not provide play-by-play coverage of the five-on-five scrimmage, which ended during a commercial break.
"Does anyone know if the Blue team or the White team won?" he wrote. "How many points did the twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison score? How many assists did the freshman guard Tyler Ulis have?"
Sandomir said the telecast needed more commentary from UK Coach John Calipari.
True and false?
Among the repetitive hosannas thrown at Kentucky during the Combine telecast, Jay Bilas said that UK was the "only team in the country that practices daily in front of eight national championship banners."
Technically true, but ...
UCLA practices under 11 championship banners. The Bruins typically practice in Pauley Pavilion during the school year. All of the program's 11 NCAA Championship banners are hung from the ceiling in Pauley Pavilion, UCLA spokesman Alex Timiraos wrote in an email.
While introducing the upcoming two-hour telecast of practice/Combine, an ESPNU studio host for The Edge got the gushing started by saying of Kentucky, "How awesome are you? They're televising your practice."
Presumably, by "They" he meant "We."
During an interview on ESPNU's Combine telecast, a defiant John Calipari noted how the two-hour telecast flew in the face of convention.
He playfully suggested that the NCAA would probably outlaw such an NBA Combine after seeing it used by Kentucky. Calipari said that an earlier Combine staged in the 2011 postseason led to an NCAA ban.
"I proudly wear the black hat," the UK coach said.
Leftovers from the Tip-Off Luncheon in Louisville:
■ John Calipari's introduction prompted a standing ovation as he approached the microphone. Once there, he playfully said, "All of you who jumped off the bandwagon last year, sit down."
■ Calipari explained why he was the first speaker (followed by Luther Deaton, Eli Capilouto, Mitch Barnhart and Matthew Mitchell) and why he would leave the ballroom after speaking. "I've got a recruit on campus, so I've got to run," Calipari said.
Mitchell was dubious, in a light-hearted way. He seemed to suggest an ulterior motive: avoiding extended autograph-signing and picture-posing after the luncheon. "'Got to leave. Got to leave. Got a big recruit,'" he said as if quoting Calipari. "I've done that." The audience — announced as numbering more than 1,000 — laughed.
Actually, Calipari did have a prospect on campus: Isaiah Briscoe, a 6-3 point guard from Union, N.J. He visited UConn earlier that weekend. Calipari offered a scholarship during the visit to UK.
Briscoe is considered the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2015. He was scheduled to visit Missouri this weekend, then visit St. John's next weekend.
■ Barnhart called Calipari, Mitchell and Mark Stoops the faces of UK's athletic program. "I can't think of three folks I'd rather have out in front," he said.
NBA team in Louisville?
New Orleans rookie (and former U of L star) Russ Smith was not sure if Kentuckians would support an NBA franchise in Louisville. College programs at U of L, UK and Western Kentucky would always be a higher priority for fans, he said.
But a pro team in Louisville seemed plausible to Darius Miller.
"This is an amazing arena," he said of the Yum Center. "I feel like you're always going to have the fan support in the state of Kentucky when it comes to basketball."
New Orleans Coach Monty Williams suggested that the Yum Center made Louisville viable as a NBA city.
"It's a great basketball town," he said. "It's worthy of a great facility like this."
Former Indiana standout Eric Gordon lamented the end of the Hoosiers' series with Kentucky. The programs couldn't agree on whether to continue the series on home courts (IU's preference) or neutral sites (UK's preference). Thanks to Christian Watford, the series ended with a bang in the 2011-12 season.
"I like that tradition going against each other," said Gordon, who plays for the Pelicans. "I'm almost upset about that."
Dear readers, I'd be curious to know what questions about UK's upcoming season command your attention or nag at your basketball soul.
Please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you prefer, The Herald-Leader, 100 Midland Ave., Lexington KY 40508.
To Mark Krebs. He turned 28 on Friday. ... To Mike Ballenger. He turned 52 on Saturday. ... To Matt Scherbenske. He turns 27 on Tuesday. ... To Dave Odom. The former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach turned 72 on Thursday. ... To Wade Houston. The former Tennessee coach and longtime Louisville assistant turned 70 on Thursday.