The Tuesday edition of the New York Times included a column by writer Pete Thamel that came to the not-illogical conclusion that University of Kentucky rates the favorite of 16 teams remaining in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. After all, Kentucky, a team stacked with players considered to be strong NBA pro prospects, has lost only two of its 36 games this season and was dominant in its two tournament games so far.
But the column contained one line that stopped me in my tracks. Citing the fact that freshman — first-year — players Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are predicted to go number 1 and number 2 in the upcoming NBA draft, and that as many as three other Kentucky underclassmen may also go high, Thamel said, “Years from now people will look back in wonderment that a single college team included such talent.”
Wonderment? The only thing I’m wondering is what planet you have to be on to know exactly why Kentucky is getting all that professional caliber talent. And it has nothing to with breaking any rules. What Kentucky has accomplished — unfortunately, from my perspective — is not only totally within the rules, but is encouraged by them.
The rule that has contributed most to giving Kentucky’s program its reputation as “One and Done U.” — a place where top talents congregate because they don’t expect to stay in college for long enough for their cup of coffee to get cold — is an age limit instituted six years ago by the NBA. The rule prevents players from going directly from high school to the pros by requiring that they be at least 19 years ago and at least one year out of high school.
The rule works for the NBA teams because it enables them to use the college game as a proving ground to show that talented, ticketed-for-stardom kids are really going to live up to the hype. Although some of the greatest players in NBA history, such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, went pro straight from high school, there were more than a few cases in which teams got burned by expending high draft picks and a lot of money on players who turned out to be unready for the pros.
The rule works for the NCAA, the broadcast networks that carry games and anyone else who has a serious financial interest in the huge industry that college ball has become. These highly rated kids may have no intention of staying more than a year or two, but that is a year or two in which the college basketball establishment can make a buck off their talents.
But the rule also requires young men — some of whom would willingly gamble on their belief that they are talented enough to make millions immediately in the NBA — to go through what is essentially a charade that they are enrolling in a college with the intention of staying long enough to get a diploma, or even establish a connection with the college community beyond whatever athletic glory they can deliver during their short visit. It turns colleges into way stations, places where NBA-caliber talents have to incubate their careers for the one year necessary to meet the pro league’s requirement.
The reason that I was taken aback by the Times reporter’s wonderment is that no team has been as aggressive or prolific as Kentucky at taking full advantage of this rule. Kentucky has pretty much hung out a banner welcoming one-and-done players since head coach John Calipari arrived in 2009 from a gig at University of Memphis (where he coached current Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose for his one great season in college).
In his first year, Calipari brought in a tremendous recruiting class. Even though his team got knocked out in the regional finals (known as the “Elite Eight”), five of his players — including all four star freshmen — left for the NBA. Last year’s team was powered to an appearance in the Final Four by guard Brandon Knight, who also went pro after one year.
It looks like Kentucky could again lose a whole starting team’s worth of underclassmen to the NBA, but no worries… Kentucky’s incoming freshmen class is rated number 2 in the nation by ESPN.com, just behind Arizona, a school whose program is looking to rebound after a few off years.
And it may not even be done yet. Nerlens Noel, a 6-11 center who is regarded as the best high-school senior player in the country, has narrowed his college choices to Kentucky, Georgetown and Syracuse. And in a revealing comment to ESPN.com describing his recent official visit to campus, Noel said, “Kentucky, when I was there they showed me how good of a job they do with their players and that maybe in 1-2 years in college I could be a professional.”
This situation has created something of a ritual during NCAA tournament time. Calipari is questioned by the national media about whether his program is less college sports and more NBA Developmental League; Calipari responds that he dislikes the rule as much as anybody and rolls out a list of reforms the NCAA can institute to provide incentives for players to stay in school for longer than a year, including paying players a financial stipend.
Meanwhile, the broadcast announcers generally take a see-no-evil approach and focus on the players’ marvelous talent (“Look at Kentucky’s latest crop of diaper dandies, bay-bee!”).
Sports may be the only thing more rife with situational ethics than politics, so Kentucky fans defend their school’s perpetual motion recruiting machine with the same fervor that they’d be denouncing it if Calipari’s next career stop had been at, say, archrival Louisville rather than in Lexington.
And those of us who root for teams that follow the traditional model of trying to build championship teams with players nurtured over four years — like Michigan State under head coach Tom Izzo — hold onto hope that the senior leadership of a player such as Draymond Green can overcome the superior but less experienced talent of what appears the equivalent of an NBA all-rookie team.
We Spartans are very proud of the fact that Izzo’s teams have won a national championship and gone to five other Final Fours in his 17 years as head coach, and prouder still that the program’s academic progress and graduation rates have improved greatly during that time. Some of the greatest names in recent MSU basketball history — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Drew Neitzel, Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Draymond Green — were four-year players.
We wouldn’t want it any other way.