UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky lore: Fabulous Five, Fiddlin’ Five … The Jackson Five?

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson shook hands with Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari after the game as the University of Kentucky played the University of Alabama in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, February 23 2016. This is second half mens basketball action. UK won 78-53.
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson shook hands with Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari after the game as the University of Kentucky played the University of Alabama in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, February 23 2016. This is second half mens basketball action. UK won 78-53. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Tito. Jackie. Jermaine. Marlon.

If that quartet of names means nothing to you, perhaps it would help to know their last names: Tito Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Jermaine Jackson and Marlon Jackson. As four-fifths of The Jackson Five, a pop music phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s, they sang and danced in the considerable shadow of the youngest brother, a prodigy named Michael Jackson.

Alabama Coach Avery Johnson referenced The Jackson Five last week in suggesting how Kentucky’s overwhelming dominance obscures the rest of Southeastern Conference basketball.

“This league can’t be Michael Jackson and The Jackson 13,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.

After only three SEC teams played in this year’s NCAA Tournament (the third time in the last four years for that embarrassment), the league pledged yet again to gain national respect for its basketball.

Johnson did not say Kentucky must fall back to the pack. He said The Jackson 13 must make Kentucky share center stage.

“There’s more room at the top,” Johnson said. “So we need more teams to win these recruiting battles. We need more teams to not only get in the NCAA Tournament, but advance.”

As for Kentucky, Johnson advised the SEC to offer brotherly support for its Michael Jackson. “We have to be happy and embrace the success of successful teams and coaches in our league,” he said. “And it should motivate us to want to do better and recruit better and to have better facilities and just improve our programs.”

For all the talk about hiring a consultant (Mike Tranghese) and a new associate commissioner for men’s basketball (Dan Leibovitz), for all the urging of teams to play better non-conference schedules, for the all marketing and promotion, Johnson offered a simple and unassailable formula for gaining nation-wide respect.

“We’ve got to win,” he said, echoing a bottom line previously cited by Tranghese, Leibovitz and several coaches through the years.

In the interim, the SEC promotes its basketball. It tries to excite the masses. Toward that end, Alabama announced its non-conference schedule for next season at a Birmingham hotel on Wednesday. A crowd of about 100, including former coach Wimp Sanderson, watched Tide players take turns revealing the names of opponents. Then Johnson commented on the teams and each participating Alabama player.

The event was “part of my marketing ideas from the NBA,” said Johnson, a former NBA player and coach. “I’m always thinking, what would Mark Cuban do?”

Johnson hoped “The Alabama Basketball Tip Off Event” would excite Alabama fans.

“And start putting basketball on their minds as we approach football season … ,” he said. “We’re steadily trying to brand our basketball program as its own separate entity, a stand-alone entity.”

He also wanted the event to differentiate Alabama basketball from its competitors and show potential recruits the program’s willingness to play an attractive schedule (a tournament in Las Vegas, plus games at Texas and Oregon in 2016-17).

Johnson had an immediate impact last season, his first as Alabama coach. Compared to the previous season, the Tide had the second-greatest attendance increase in the nation. Only Maryland had a larger increase. And for those who demand greater respect for SEC basketball, three other league teams were in the top 10: LSU (third), Vanderbilt (fifth) and Texas A&M (eighth).

When speaking of coexistence with Alabama football, Johnson made Nick Saban’s dominant program sound like Kentucky basketball: Dynastic. Iconic. You could say Michael Jackson-esque.

“At Alabama, we just can’t afford to have our football team at such an elite level and basketball so far behind,” Johnson said. “We’re not trying to beat football. What we’re trying to do is partner with them. How can we partner with them when we’re so far behind?”

Inexact science

UK Coach John Calipari and Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart have lobbied for a set criteria for how the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee makes decisions about seeding and bracketing.

But is it as easy as that? Say playing opponents with a top-50 RPI is the top priority, how much control can you have on the opponents’ RPI? It would be an elusive standard, said former Virginia Coach Terry Holland. And, by definition, there is a limited number of top-50 opponents.

“Everybody can’t play top 50,” said Holland, a past member of the Selection Committee, “and nobody can predict who will be in the top 50 in a given year, to try to put that schedule together.”

South Carolina proved the point last season. The Gamecocks tied a school record by winning 25 games and had an 11-7 SEC record. Yet, South Carolina did not get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The blame was placed on a weak non-conference schedule.

Was it South Carolina’s fault that two marquee opponents — St. John’s (8-24) and DePaul (9-22) — had poor seasons?

Not Cal’s pals?

During an appearance on Mike Lupica’s radio show last month, John Calipari scoffed at two of the NCAA’s foundational ideas: amateurism and the need for a level playing field.

“That’s been my voice,” he said. “And you wonder why they come after me.”

More than once since coming to Lexington, Calipari has hinted broadly of a “they” conspiring against him. He has said Kentucky’s seeding or bracketing reflected an NCAA effort to further thwart him (vacated Final Four appearances in 1996 and 2008 being two earlier examples).

This sounded familiar to Bill Hancock, a former NCAA staff liaison for the Selection Committee for 16 years.

“When I was there, we heard that from the UNLV people,” he said this spring. “‘The committee doesn’t like Tark.’ ‘The committee doesn’t like UNLV.’ ‘The NCAA doesn’t like them so they’re not going to rank them high.’”

So, did the Selection Committee actually try to “get” Jerry Tarkanian in such a way?

“Never, ever,” Hancock said. “It was never, ever a factor when I was in the committee room. I don’t buy that at all.”

But Calipari keeps insisting the committee can have ulterior motives.

“I have to disagree with John on that,” Hancock said. “I was there too many times. If it had happened, I would have known about it. It never happened.”

Good faith effort

Dan Leibovitz, the newly hired associate commissioner tasked with improving SEC basketball’s profile nationally, agreed with a reporter’s premise that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee makes a good-faith effort to get the seeding and bracketing correct.

“I would have every reason to believe they’re doing what they can to get it right,” Leibovitz said.

After dismissing the idea of an inherent bias in the selection, seeding and bracketing process, Leibovitz said, “Do I think it’s perfect? No. Anything can be improved. But it is the system that’s in place. I do believe they are trying to get it right. They answer to the membership, and they answer to each other, and we’ve got to navigate it the best we can.”

‘The best thing’

When meeting reporters in Sacramento after the NBA Draft, ex-Cat Skal Labissiere tried to explain the struggles that marked his one-and-done season for Kentucky. Of course, he arrived at UK billed as a possible No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

While averaging 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds for UK last season, Labissiere slid to the outer reaches of the lottery in mock drafts. Then on draft night, the Kings took him with the 28th pick of the first round.

“I put pressure on myself,” he said according to a story in the Sacramento Bee. “And I’m looking forward to putting my name back out there. I think that (season at Kentucky was) the best thing that could have happened to me right there, a wake-up call. Now, it’s just time to go to work.”

Trail blazer?

Amar’e Stoudemire quietly retired as a basketball player last week. He averaged 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in 14 NBA seasons. He was a six-time All-Star.

But a more vivid memory sparked by his retirement announcement predated all that.

In July 2001, Stoudemire made recruiting news and, for better or worse, showed how he was ahead of his time in terms of establishing a brand. Here’s how a story in the Herald-Leader began:

The nation’s No. 1-rated high school prospect ambled into the hotel ballroom set aside for media interviews yesterday. With him came a development new for the Nike All-America Camp and surely for college basketball recruiting.

Big man Amar’e Stoudemire brought a personal public relations man. ...

Marc Little, a middle-aged gentleman in a checked sports coat, handed reporters folders containing photographs of Stoudemire and copies of newspaper articles on the 6-foot-10 phenom. Like any good P.R. man, Little put a positive spin on his client’s checkered past: six high schools in the last 17 months, a father deceased, a mother who recently served a six-month jail term while awaiting trial on a theft charge, an older brother in prison. ...

“On the positive side, it’s made him a better man,” Little said. “He’s learned adversity can make you a better person.”

Little’s public-relations business is in Jacksonville, Fla. His services were sought by Rev. Bill Williams, a Pentecostal minister at the Orlando church that Stoudemire attends, and Travis King, Stoudemire’s summer AAU coach.

“We wanted to make sure that people got the picture that Amar’e is more than people think: Hanging on the street corner, doing drugs,” Little said. “He doesn’t have that problem. But the temptation is that when you come from a single-parent household, especially when the mother is not around, the kid is a bad kid. He’s not and we had to stop that.”

Happy birthday

To Steve Clevenger. He turned 70 on Friday. … To Mike Flynn. He turns 63 on Sunday (today). … To Gene Stewart. He turns 71 on Sunday (today). … To North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. He turns 66 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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