It was somehow fitting that DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins was the one person, of all people, who rekindled the “superteam” debate this week when the former Kentucky center agreed to a one-year deal with the two-time defending world champion Golden State Warriors.
Unfair! So the competition cried. The Warriors already own an embarrassment of riches with four genuine all-stars in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Adding an all-star center — even one coming off a ruptured Achilles — to the core four that has captured the NBA title three of the last four years seems downright criminal.
How is the rest of the league supposed to compete?
Kentucky athletics knows that question from both sides.
UK basketball knows all about the “superteam” label, one it has worn on numerous occasions via its self-proclaimed status as the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.
And UK football knows about this “superteam” stuff, as well, though from a much different perspective.
Kentucky basketball has been a traditional “have,” while Kentucky football has been a traditional “have-not.”
And as so often happens in college sports, the rich get richer, especially when it comes to college football. Just take a look at the last 20 years of the college football national championship game versus the 20-year history of the college basketball national championship game.
For football, that means first the BCS (1998-2013) followed by the current College Football Playoff (2014-17). For basketball, that means, of course, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament national title game.
Just 17 different schools have competed in the college football national championship over the past 20 years (1998-2017). Alabama has been there six times. Florida State, Ohio State and Oklahoma have been there four times. USC has reached the national title three times.
Meanwhile, 22 different schools have reached college basketball’s national championship game over the past 20 years (1999-2018). No school has been there more than four times, with Connecticut, Duke and North Carolina matching that number. Florida and Kansas have reached the title game three times.
Kentucky basketball has been there twice in the past two decades, though if you extended the time line the Wildcats have made five title game appearances in the past 23 years.
And these days, Kentucky Coach John Calipari operates on an NBA-like “superteam” pitch. The recruits are free agents, a la Cousins. Great players want to play with great players who share a common goal — getting to the NBA. Highly competitive practices improve your skills. The pro-style culture prepares you for the professional lifestyle. And you just might win a title, too.
If a handful of players can change a college basketball program’s fortunes, college football is much more of a numbers game. It takes more than one star player or one star-studded recruiting class to turn around a program. It takes two, three, four classes to make a national impact.
Remember the timetable Howard Schnellenberger gave when he arrived at Louisville after winning a national title at Miami — His "collision course" with greatness? Fifteen years, said the pipe-smoking Schellenberger. That’s how long it would take to build a national championship program.
Kentucky football has the double whammy of trying to build a team while facing the “superteams” of the SEC. Besides Alabama’s half-dozen appearances, Florida (two), LSU (twice), Auburn (twice), Georgia (once) and Tennessee (once) have all been just one win away from a national title in the last 20 years. All but Georgia have won it at least once.
So 35 percent (14-of-40) of the title-game slots have been filled by SEC schools. Compare that to current schools in the ACC (nine slots), Big Ten (five), Pac-12 (five), Big 12 (four) and independent (one).
Over the past decade, UK football has the worst record in the SEC, just 21-59. It hasn’t posted a winning conference mark since 1977. There’s a reason for that. If Kentucky basketball is often a “superteam” Kentucky football is often playing the “superteam.”
SEC football 2008-17