Can Kentucky’s Revolving Door of Freshmen Win a National Title?

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Mark Cornelison / Lexington Herald-Leader / MCT / Getty Images

Kentucky Coach John Calipari regularly recruits NBA-style talent. But can inexperienced freshmen win a national championship?

Kentucky men’s basketball program is forever young. You could say that about any college team, but none more so than Kentucky. Every year, coach John Calipari brings in a new crop of super-freshmen. And almost every year, those freshmen play one year and immediately leave for the NBA. Can you really win a national championship that way?

Since the NBA instituted the rule that players had to be 19 years old to be eligible for the NBA Draft, 42 college freshmen have gone to the NBA. One out of every five of those players played under Calipari at either Memphis or the University of Kentucky. In the last two years, 18 freshmen have been drafted, one-third of them having played for Calipari. In 2010 alone, Calipari’s entire starting lineup — freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and senior Patrick Patterson – all went pro. This year, it’s likely that three Kentucky freshmen, two of whom are considered top 10 draft prospects, will jump to the NBA.

Kentucky basketball isn’t about being a student-athlete, Calipari’s critics say. It’s about prepping players for the NBA and the million-dollar contracts that come with it. And it’s true that the Kentucky program has become a revolving door of talent. Every year, a new crop of freshmen enters that seem to be more talented than the previous class.

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But so far, in Calipari’s two decades as a college head coach at the University of Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky, he’s yet to win a national championship. (He got oh-so-close in 2008 against Kansas until Memphis, led by 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, blew it in the last few minutes.) Still, Calipari is considered one of the game’s premiere coaches: he’s been named national coach of the year twice, his teams have made it to the Final Four three times and he led Memphis to 38 wins in 2008, more than any other team in Division I history. (However, the NCAA has vacated two of his Final Four trips. His 1996 appearance with UMass is off the books because center Marcus Camby took $28,000 from an agent while in school. And an SAT cheating scandal scrubbed his 2008 trip: reportedly, someone took the test for Rose. In both cases, Calipari was not singled out for any wrongdoing.)

This may be Calipari’s best chance to win it all. For eight straight weeks, Kentucky has been ranked No. 1 in the country in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. They are the top overall seed in the tournament: on Friday in Louisville, the Wildcats will face the winner of Tuesday’s Mississippi Valley St.-Western Kentucky play-in game. Kentucky’s size, length and athleticism are remarkable. Anthony Davis, a snake-armed 6-10 forward, could not only win freshman of the year and defensive player of the year, but national player of the year. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-7 forward who has posted six double-doubles, is (like Davis) a Wooden Award finalist for player of the year. Marquis Teague, a 6-2 guard and assist man who’s deftly running the fast-paced Wildcat offense, is also considered a top NBA prospect. Sophomore Terrence Jones, the team’s third leading scorer, is a monster on the blocks and may be peaking at just the right time of year after his great play in the SEC tourney.

If you look at past championship teams, there are only a couple whose youth matches up with this year’s Kentucky squad: Syracuse’s 2003 team, which included freshmen Gerry McNamara and Carmelo Anthony, and last year’s UConn team. But Syracuse at least had a senior in the starting lineup and UConn had the slashing junior Kemba Walker. Compare that with other more recent championship teams, like Kansas in 2008, North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2010, which all had a much more experienced lineup and players that had been to the tournament multiple times.

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“I think [youth] matters, but I don’t think it matters as much now as it did years ago,” says ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. “Your chances are improved if you’ve got experience and talent.”

In an interview, Bilas compared the current Kentucky lineup to the 2010 team from a couple years ago – the four-freshmen squad in 2010 – that looked like championship material until they met West Virginia in the East Regional.

“I didn’t think Kentucky did a very good job of attacking [West Virginia’s 1-3-1 half-court zone] in large measure because of how young they were,” Bilas says. “In a one-game scenario, their youth let them down. Could that happen this year? Sure it could.”

While Bilas believes Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina are the three best teams in the country this year, Kentucky is by far the most inexperienced. And it’s because of Calipari’s style of recruiting. Seemingly every year, he’s getting the most talented freshmen in the country. But it’s not as if every other coach in America isn’t going after the same players. It’s just that Calipari doesn’t hide it.

“One thing he’s doing,” says Bilas, “and I don’t have a problem with it – actually, I applaud it – is he is basically selling to these young men, ‘Your dream is to play in the NBA? Look at our track record of getting players to the NBA.’ Other coaches are talking about the NBA. They just don’t do it as well, and they act like they don’t. John is a bit more outspoken and out-front on it, and he’s a really good salesperson.”

For that candor, Calipari has taken his shots.

For instance, on Friday USA Today quoted Princeton athletic director Gary Walters – a starting point guard on that school’s 1965 Final Four team – condemning Calipari’s method of recruiting “one-and-done” players. “How can one embrace and really feel good about people – quote, student-athletes – representing your university who in essence are rent-a-year players?” Walters said. “It goes a long way toward tainting the credibility of the tournament.”

In that same article, Kentucky forward Anthony Davis said: “Coach Cal tells all his recruits – he told me – ‘I get guys to where they want to go. I like to make their dream come true. … He runs this program as if it were an NBA team. … I would say we’re kind of getting a head start on what’s going to happen at the next level.”

Calipari knows he’s a target, and an easy one due to his two vacated Final Fours. He recently wrote a column titled “The great myth of our program” in which he said, “As most of you are now aware, I don’t believe in the one-and-done rule. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the student-athletes, the NCAA or the NBA. I personally think kids should have to stay two or three years.”

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While some argue that Calipari is simply collecting talent in Lexington rather than building a team the way a Coach Mike Krzyzewski, for instance, would at Duke, Bilas says he disagrees with that assessment.

“I think he builds a team the way everybody else does. His players share the ball. They play really hard on defense. Every stereotype that is pinned on John – their play debunks it. They don’t play like spoiled stars. That’s a hard-working, blue-collar team.”

For Bilas, it’s the system itself that’s flawed, not Calipari. He’s just getting all the blame. One year of college is better, Bilas says. Two years? Even better. And while Kentucky currently has one of the highest Academic Progress Rates in the SEC, Calipari’s teams have also earned some of the lowest grades for any athletic program at the school. But Bilas says he finds it baffling that people believe it’s up to the coach to graduate his players.

“They can be good influences on them, they can be helpful, they can be encouraging. But it’s funny how basketball and football coaches are the only ones that are pinned with graduation rates,” Bilas says. “When a regular student runs into academic troubles, they don’t go to a professor and say, ‘What did you do wrong in trying to educate this student?’”

But the difference between regular students and student-athletes is that they’re representing their schools on a national level. And clearly, administrators want those athletes to represent their schools in the best possible way.

In college basketball, it’s no longer the norm for a player stay four years for a degree, then move onto the NBA. The pure student-athlete system is broken, and Calipari is not the only coach taking advantage. By all accounts, he’s playing by the rules, even though many strongly believe that to get such consistent talent, something fishy is going on in Lexington.

And if Kentucky doesn’t cut down the nets on April 2, there’s always next year. Kentucky’s incoming recruiting class is ranked third in the country.