The $1.3-billion venue, configured for 90,000 fans and flaunting a video board 66 feet longer than the basketball court, screams of mad excess. The ticket prices, the average salary at the coaches’ convention, the lingering presence of Jerry Jones, the custom Lucchese cowboy boots and Stetson hats — all of it reeks of luxury and affluence. The team receiving the most attention, Kentucky, is coached by a $5.4-million-a-year guerilla recruiter, John Calipari, who sells mercenary teenagers on the often-bogus dream of staying one year in school before leapfrogging to the NBA.
Does anything even remotely suggest “college’’ at the Final Four?
Why, yes. Bo Ryan does. Sitting beside Calipari at a news conference, the two struck a curiously antithetical pose, with Ryan representing all that is old-school and fundamental about basketball and a college education at Wisconsin. When the inevitable question was posed immediately — the one-and-done emphasis at Kentucky vs. the four-and-done demand at Wisconsin, where Ryan has one of the highest graduation rates in the sport — Ryan tried to lighten the mood. “Well, here’s all I got to say to Cal. When somebody asks me about one and done, all I remember is when my mom would give me a pork chop or a piece of meatloaf and I would ask for another piece and she would say, `No, one and done.’ ‘’ Giggles aside, everyone is aware of the classic culture clash in this national semifinal, which, by no coincidence, is the featured game Saturday night. And Calipari, whose antennae are high and his senses battered over perceptions that he’s academically lax, instantly went into defensive mode about the way he runs his program.
“First of all, does a player have to be here four years to be a terrific college player?’’ he said. “The last four years, our (collective) grade point average has been a 3.0. Our APR is as high as anybody in the country. They’re college students; they’re just not college students for four years, in most cases, but in some they are. We don’t talk about it … we don’t talk about NBA. We’re worried about winning college games and being a great college team. Losing yourself in the team, doing less which ends up being more, losing yourself in the game. So I don’t think the kids are thinking all those things. The issue `one and done’ has now become a bad connotation. So we’re going to break out something new this week to get you guys off this `one and done’ so that we can think about it in another term, which is trying to help these kids do what they’re trying to do as college students, as where they want their careers to go.’’
Who’s calling BS first?
From Derrick Rose at Memphis to John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle and others to come at Kentucky, what Calipari is doing is running an on-campus version of an NBA developmental league. Ryan, who got into the business as a junior high-school teacher who was given a coaching job as a sidelight, is trying to prepare players for life via the university curriculum. “For me, I get so excited about seeing the student get an A on the test as much as when I see a player get better and perform well and come together and have a unit come together as a team,’’ Ryan said.
Never has a Final Four game had such significant societal battle lines. It wasn’t designed as such by the NCAA selection committee — honestly, who saw either team advancing this far two weeks ago? — but now that it has materialized, it’s hard not to take a side. I have Wisconsin, which can prove it’s possible to get a four-year degree AND beat a future team of NBA players in one swoop. For that matter, the other two teams, Florida and Connecticut, also are closer right now to Wisconsin in structure and philosophy. The UConn star, Shabazz Napier, kept a promise to his mother that he would graduate as a senior, rejecting an early path to the NBA when the program was banned from the NCAA tournament last year. Florida’s Billy Donovan produces NBA players, for sure, but not until they’ve spent seasons — plural — in his program and he has taught them about hoops and life.
The basketball junkie in me has Kentucky and Florida meeting for the national championship. But the voice in my head is cheering hard for Ryan, who keeps bringing up Platteville. That would be the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, the Division III program where he coached before the big boys in Madison found him 13 years ago. “I always promised my Platteville guys to stay true in those national championships that we had, when we played in front of maybe 5,000. So I don’t know what it’s like being in front of 75,000,’’ he said. “But once the ball is thrown up, you still have to manage in those first timeouts. No matter whether it’s Division I or Division III, you got to manage emotions and energy and try to channel it the right way and get everybody concentrating on what it is we do and don’t try to be somebody that we’re not.
“When it comes time to play, then just be who you are.’’
We know who Ryan is. We know who Calipari is.
May the more honorable method win.