As tends to happen when a Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball season hits the rocks of adversity, there is ample second-guessing in these parts now about whether John Calipari’s reliance on one-and-done talent is the best course for the UK program.
With its youthful playing rotation of seven freshmen and two relatively inexperienced sophomores, Kentucky (17-7, 6-5 SEC) has lost two games in a row and four of its last seven.
Adding to the gathering storm of angst, when UK visits Texas A&M on Saturday, it starts a brutal four-game stretch in which the Cats play road games against the talented Aggies, SEC-leading Auburn and capable Arkansas along with a home game against Alabama and its freshman star Collin Sexton.
As I have tried to explain to my friends in the national media across the years, there has always been more ambivalence in Kentucky over UK’s emphasis on one-and-done players than many outside the commonwealth perceive.
Wildcats backers have relished seeing transcendent talents like John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns in blue and white, of course. UK fans certainly enjoyed the four Final Fours in five years from 2010-11 through 2014-15 that the one-and-done era yielded.
However, some UK backers — and I think the split is generational, with older Wildcats fans especially skeptical — have long been irritated by Kentucky basketball being marketed as the most efficient path to the NBA rather than as a special destination in its own right.
Now in the ninth year of UK’s one-and-done era, fan fatigue with having to “learn a brand new team” every season due to an ever-churning roster is a real phenomenon.
However, if you wish to engage in the debate about Kentucky’s reliance on one-and-done players, there are two things that one often hears critical of the practice that do not hold up to scrutiny.
Yes, Calipari has said more than once in the past that his top priority is putting players in the NBA, not winning NCAA titles.
However, when people therefore say the Kentucky coach only cares about putting players in the pros, not winning for UK, only one response is appropriate.
Over the course of a long college coaching career, the common criticism of Calipari has been that his zeal for winning had little boundary. Now, in one of the most visible coaching jobs in the sport, we are to believe Calipari is on a humanitarian mission and no longer cares who wins the games?
The theory underlying Calipari’s emphasis on getting players to the NBA is that doing so helps you then attract more players to Kentucky with pro-level talent to help UK win more games.
A second common lament about Kentucky’s one-and-done era is that players enticed to Lexington because it’s the quickest path to the NBA are not deeply invested in whether the Wildcats win or lose.
Well, I’ve been in the UK locker room after NCAA Tournament losses in recent years and observed soon-to-be NBA millionaires after their one shot at a college national championship ended.
I saw Jamal Murray, head buried beneath a towel, sobbing after Kentucky lost to Indiana in the 2016 NCAA tourney round of 32.
Those players sure looked like they cared.
Not liking the “one-and-done” era is a matter of opinion — and it’s a viewpoint no one has to apologize for holding.
Wondering whether Kentucky relying on so many players who stay in school for only one season before turning pro is the best way to pursue NCAA championships is a wholly legitimate topic for debate.
Don’t enter that debate, however, by saying Calipari isn’t going all out to win games for UK.
Don’t say Kentucky’s one-and-done players don’t care about how UK fares because they are only in Lexington to get to the pros.
In some really solemn NCAA Tournament locker rooms these past few years, some soon-to-be one-and-done Kentucky players have been shown to care very much about their college team and how its season ended.