The Kentucky Wildcats are killing college basketball.
It's a common refrain every year, the griping growing louder whenever tournament time rolls around. And sure, it's easy to hate on a team whose bench players could be starters for any other school, and whose coach has the wolfish look of a too-slick lawyer. Kentucky's decades of success — their eight national titles rank second only to UCLA's 11 — make them perennial villains outside the Bluegrass State, too.
But the arguments against this Kentucky squad — which sits one win away from a perfect regular season — are misguided, the product of historical bias, lazy assumptions, and unnecessary hand-wringing. So with the Wildcats poised to enter the NCAA Tournament with a chance to become the first men's hoops team to go undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, it's time to start rooting for Kentucky.
The biggest knock on Kentucky is that coach John Calipari has supposedly ruined college basketball by assembling juggernaut teams loaded with all the nation's top recruits. The complaint is twofold. First, that his embrace of the one-and-done rule — in which players can graduate to the NBA after only a year of college play — gutted the quality of play across the college level. And second, that it violated the sanctity of the game.
Let's start with the latter.
"Calipari has professionalized college sports, which is great for him and good for his recruits," Chuck Klosterman warned in 2012. "It's just discomforting for anyone who likes NCAA basketball, assuming they're drawn to the same game that lives within their memory."
The problem with this argument is that the "memory" is of a mythic era when college basketball was played The Right Way. The NCAA, and college hoops, have always been deeply corrupt. As famed UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian once quipped, "Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place." Calipari is a ruthless recruiter with a dubious record of rules violations, but he is hardly a sinner among saints.
As for the quality of play argument, it alleges that Calipari's methods lead to a pooling of talent at a few powerhouse schools, which then weakens competition across the board. College basketball "is mired in sluggish and largely unwatchable play," Michael Weinreb wrote last month in Rolling Stone, with the consensus being that the sport "has lost its way largely because of the one-and-done rule that has benefited Kentucky so greatly."
Except the target of this complaint is not Kentucky itself, but the system in which Kentucky operates. If you hate the one-and-done rule, hate the NBA for implementing it. Calipari did not create the system, but has merely learned to thrive within it. Don't hate the coach, hate the game.
More disconcerting, though, is that the complaint is not at all about what is best for players, but what is best for viewers. It's an argument that crooked labor practices are preferable to a perceived erosion of entertainment value. But why should we be upset that young men want to go pro, escape the NCAA's exploitation, and finally make some money?
And anyway, though the Wildcats are loaded with future lottery picks, they are not solely reliant on one-and-done guys. Quite the contrary. Their leading scorer is a sophomore. Their most prominent player, big man Willie Cauley-Stein, is a junior.
Moreover, Kentucky plays precisely the kind of selfless team basketball all the critics pine for. Only two Kentucky players average double-digits in points. Meanwhile, 10 average more than 10 minutes per game, and eight log at least 20. That's because Calipari essentially platoons two lineups, rationing minutes rather than letting one or two players hog the spotlight. His players knew this going into the season, and selfish recruits would have gone elsewhere to rack up more minutes and highlights.
Then there's the simple truth that the Wildcats are an absolute joy to watch thanks to their unrivaled combination of athleticism and well-coached polish:
Even Louisville fans have to admire that amazing talent.
A perfect season in men's basketball is a thrilling rarity, and the prospect of Kentucky being the first to achieve the feat in four decades makes the looming NCAA tournament that much more exciting. There would even be a sweet irony to the team credited with killing college basketball pulling off its greatest achievement, the fate of an unbeaten season dramatically heightening the tension of every do-or-die game.
You don't need to root for Calipari. And you don't need to root for every Kentucky team. But this team, with its chance at history, deserves better than all the lazy, knee-jerk hatred that gets thrown their way.