They are bonding, as kids do, with a video game. It isn’t lost on us that the game is called “NBA 2K,’’ because the NBA is where several Kentucky players believe they’re headed once they conclude this preliminary exercise known as the NCAA tournament. “I got the first seed,” said James Young, a vital member of John Calipari’s one-and-done freshmen society. “I’m out here winning. I’m trying to get to the Final Four with my team.’’
How utterly perfect, of course, that life would imitate their user interface. When they were finished with their fun in an Indianapolis hotel, the Wildcats spent the weekend in Lucas Oil Stadium carving a fast track toward college basketball history. First they beat their bitter blood rival, Louisville, with a furious late comeback. Then, again responding to the clock’s urgency, they charged from behind to beat Michigan in a spectacular, momentum-flipping classic in the Midwest Regional final. They have reached the goal presumed dead through most of a tortured season — the Final Four — and in steering this group of precocious yet rapidly maturing kids to the national semifinals, Calipari now is in position to further revolutionize the college game as the rest of us cringe and shriek.
Imagine if the mad scientist, the man who created this system of using “student-athletes’’ for one year before shipping them to the NBA, rides his method to a second national championship in three years. You don’t have to like this raw and cold form of exploitation, but when one triumph jumps to multiple triumphs, then we’re forced to pass grudging praise onto the mad scientist who created this kiddie monster.
“I’m gonna see everyone in Dallas this year,’’ said Calipari, trying a lame version of a Texas drawl.
Don’t bother conducting a poll. Without debate, Calipari is the most loathed man in college basketball, primarily because what he preaches is not college basketball but something you’d have seen Kevin Trudeau hawking about college basketball on a 3:30 a.m. TV infomercial (Note: Trudeau was sentenced to a 10-year jail sentence for consumer fraud). Under the phony premise that his players are his only real priority as a coach — his leadership book, to be strategically released in time for the Final Four, is called “Players First’’ — Calipari is on an evangelical soapbox that he can point one-and-doners immediately to the NBA while they try to win a quickie NCAA championship for Kentucky.
“We’re doing what we can do with where we are. The rule is not my rule,’’ Calipari said. “I believe it should be a two-year rule. But it’s between the NBA and the players association. Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA So I just think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt.
“Kids are going on to the league from us and performing, and I’m proud of that. Would I like to have had them for four years? Yes. But I also like what’s happened for them and their families. The rule is the way it is; I’m not punishing these kids. If they choose to leave — even though they maybe shouldn’t leave, but they still choose to leave — I’m going to support them. It’s their decision, for them; it’s not about me or about the University of Kentucky at that point.”
Of course, all he’s doing is playing to the soft academic weaknesses of teenaged hoops prodigies — “Gee, if I play for him, I can blow off school and be in the NBA the following June,’’ goes the thought process — so St. Cal can pick the players he wants and annually reload his assembly line of talent. Once he won a national championship with two such one-and-doners (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) two years ago, Calipari had his street cred. He entered this season with eight high-school All-Americans on his roster, including a class of six freshman generally hailed as the best-ever recruiting class in the sport’s history.
“We don’t just play college basketball,’’ St. Cal announced as the season began. “We ARE college basketball.’’
No, you are a feeder system — for the grateful NBA, for ravenous and demanding Kentucky fans and for the enormous Calipari ego. And until this past Sunday, a whole lot of us were delighted to see Kentucky, a season after failing to reach the NCAA tournament, struggling with maturity, cohesion and listening issues and appearing ready to exit early from this year’s tournament. Imagine: Only months after suggesting his team might be the first ever to go 40-0, St. Cal was taking 10 losses into the tournament. He was a walking embarrassment — petulantly blowing off a post-loss press conference, complaining his team was “the most over-analyzed team in the history of sports’’ (didn’t he suggest Kentucky might go 40-0?), then complaining that his players were “counting on me too much.’’
Wait. Players First, right? And those same players were counting on Calipari too much when they needed him most? Opinions were mounting that he was the next one done at Kentucky, eyeing the New York Knicks. Some were demanding his ouster, sensing St. Cal was much more a recruiting con man than an actual coach. His daughter, Erin, defended him on Twitter: “People saying my dad should be fired, he won 81% of his games @ UK. Coach K 79% Duke. Roy Williams 78% @ UNC. Pitino 74% @ UL … #forreference.’’
We waited for the crash.
Instead, Calipari’s parachute opened.
As if a season’s worth of tongue-lashings and ass-kickings finally were resonating in a single two-hour sound chamber, the Kentucky kids melded as one against a gauntlet of Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan and suddenly look like championship contenders. While presumed future NBA stars Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were flaming out of the tournament with eyesore performances, Calipari has watched in bliss as the embattled twin brothers, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, have combined with lottery pick Julius Randle to flirt with the unthinkable. Calipari has two bad hips.
“I’m whistling and skipping,’’ he said.
The purists almost had their man nailed to the wall, at long last. They’d just about run him out of college basketball and taken back the game.
Now, the bad guy has life. After beating Rick Pitino and John Beilein in the Midwest Regional, St. Cal is the talk of the sports world. Once again, as they exhibited the previous Sunday, the kids were more poised in the final minutes than an experienced Louisville team. Aaron Harrison made a killer three-pointer with 39 seconds left, and Randle Cooly made two free throws to give Kentucky its second NCAA tournament victory over the Cardinals in the last three years. Michigan, last year’s national runner up, quieted Aaron Harrison for the first 32 minutes Sunday. He broke though in the final eight minutes for four three-pointers, including the dagger over a blanketing Caris Levert with 2.3 seconds left that sent Nik Stauskas and the Wolverines home. “I hit a couple before that, so coach said to get the shot we were looking for,” Harrison said. “They put it in my hands and I wanted to deliver for them out there. I knew I had to take the shot. I wasn’t really sure how much time was left, so I just tried to take the best should I could. And it fell. Seeing my teammates so happy and running toward me, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
“He’s not afraid to miss,” Calipari said. “That’s the whole thing about making those kind of plays. You can’t be afraid to miss. That’s where he is right now.”
Kentucky won the national title in 2012, and Louisville did a year ago. Is it Calipari’s turn again, in college basketball’s version of Alabama-Auburn dominance? That we’re even pondering the question, after seeing Calipari and his lads struggle most of the season, seems preposterous.
But do ask the question. This team and this coach are proving us wrong.
“I told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood,” Calipari said after the Louisville game. “You can fight or you can brace yourself for the next shot. They fought.”
And his thoughts now, as he heads to the Final Four? “Every year it’s a process,” Calipari said. “Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out. It’s not all them. They were trying. Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, all that stuff. When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier.”
How is all of this happening? “They finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team,’’ he said.
Not many teams recover from a seven-point deficit with four and a half minutes left on the tournament’s second weekend, as Kentucky did against Louisville. The kids have learned from their lumps. “I didn’t really feel any pressure,” Randle said. “I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us. I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us.”
Calipari looked relieved and proud as he heard them speak. He realizes his critics are vocal, harsh and relentless. He knew they were ready to bury him just a week earlier. How do you like him now? “This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out,’’ he said.
“We all came in with high expectations,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said. “But after we started losing games, I think that taught us a valuable lesson that we can’t coast. We have to compete for 40 minutes.”
The next opponent is Wisconsin, the ideal foil as the antithesis to all things Calipari. For the third straight year, every senior player will graduate. Bo Ryan, the coaching lifer who lost his 90-year-old father and best friend last August, finally is in the Final Four after reaching six Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights in 13 seasons in Madison. He demands his players stay all four years and coaches basketball like he’s at Pleasantville High School — a movie reference — in the ‘50s. The Badgers play lumberjack defense and run a fundamental, old-school offense with one exception — they have Frank Kaminsky. If you didn’t know him before the weekend, you do now after he carved up Arizona with a spectacular array of post moves and jumpshots that belie his nickname, “Frank the Tank.’’ The NBA is salivating that a 7-footer could be so versatile and bullish, though sometimes clumsily so, with 28 points and 11 rebounds (seven on the offensive end).
“Frank Kaminsky is the reason Wisconsin’s in the Final Four,’’ Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
“We want a national championship now,” Kaminsky said. “We have made it to the opportunity to get there, so why not go get it?”
You tell ‘em, Frank the Tank.
Problem is, he can’t be the only Badger showing up offensively against Kentucky. The Kiddie Cats have too many developed weapons now. Remember, Kentucky rallied and nearly stole the SEC title game two weekends ago from Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and clear favorite to beat upstart Connecticut in the other national semifinal. There might be seven NBA futures on Calipari’s team. Nothing is more dangerous in March — and April — than pro-skilled players emerging as one with the stakes at their highest. It was sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, now fighting an ankle injury, who said Kentucky would “shock the world,’’ adding, “There’s a lot of people that don’t think we can make a run at it. And you know, a lot of people don’t want to see us make a run at it.’’
St. Cal didn’t like hearing that. Only he can make the public proclamations, you see. But he must love the burgeoning confidence.
“It shows how much work we’ve put in, how much we’re getting better,’’ Andrew Harrison said.
“Here’s what happened with my team,’’ Calipari said. “They now are putting themselves in a position where they’re accepting roles how they have to play. So we’re becoming a better team. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they’re playing better and more confident. And the other thing is, because we’ve been through so much throughout the year, they’re stronger. So a little lull in the game doesn’t affect them. They’re been through all that. Their will to win, to stay with it — all that, they’ve been up against.’’
We love most March stories because they are embraceable, charming. Nothing is warm and fuzzy about St. Cal and the rise of his one-and-doners. Do not forget that he is the only coach who had to vacate two Final Four appearances because of NCAA rules violations, the first at UMass because Marcus Camby took money from an agent, the second at Memphis because Derrick Rose allegedly had someone else take an SAT test for him.
At the center of Calipari’s self-righteous rampage through the sport is a familiar question: Should college athletes be paid? Again, they are being rewarded with full-ride scholarships that, if they chose to stay the full four years instead of one, are worth beyond $200,000 at many schools. They also have a regularly televised resume for their next employer, something the science major and music major don’t have. They also live like kings in beautiful residence and training complexes, as Kentucky players know. Should they also be paid a stipend out of the disgustingly mammoth pot now shared by the NCAA, the TV networks and the programs themselves? Certainly. But that won’t stop the cries of 21st-century slavery.
And that won’t stop “heroes’’ like Calipari from swooping in and protecting these kids, Players First, even when you know and I know that he’s another scam artist trying to win in a filthy sport. All of this smacks of Michigan’s Fab Five from a generation ago, a comparison the Kiddie ‘Cats have heard. Just as Michigan had five freshmen starters, do does Kentucky. “All great players who had great careers,” Randle said. “They were trendsetters. They really just moved the game of basketball. If we can be can be compared to anything like those guys, it would be a terrific honor. They did a lot for the game. We’re just trying to be ourselves.”
Do give Calipari this: He is proving, again, that he can take a team of raw kids and develop them into championship contenders. And proving that his players finally can enjoy the ride when it had been so excruciating for months.
“We’re probably gonna have the tournament tonight,” Alex Poythress said of the video-game competition. “I think I’m a 2-seed. I don’t know if (Young) is the No. 1 overall seed. We’re still kids. We still play video games.”
“It’s important, team bonding,’’ Randle said. “Just having fun.”
We can tell.