There seems to be a big paintbrush in the sky today. We are told Kentucky’s championship — it having been won with a collection of rentals — is an ominous sign for the future of college basketball. The one-and-done thing was not supposed to work, but it did, and now what is stopping John Calipari’s reign of terror?
I suppose I agree with that on a theoretical level. That Calipari won a national championship doing it this way certainly is a Louisville Slugger to the gut of some old illusions about college hoops. I don’t know that anybody thought it was impossible to win a national title with a team of freshmen and sophomores — Michigan very nearly did it in two different seasons, and that was 20 years ago — but the old thinking seemed to be that, yeah, you can go with Cal and run that freewheeling offense and get into the NBA, but your undoing will be inevitable, and probably at the hands of some senior with good grades. A team cannot live on talent alone.
So the fact Kentucky won on talent alone feels like a paradigm shift. It feels like Calipari has cracked the code and now will just keep hitting the refresh button ad infinitum until we all cry uncle.
But here’s the thing: That’s all based on a fallacy.
That Kentucky team that beat Kansas last night was not just a collection of one-and-done players. It was an especially selfless, congealed collection of one-and-done players which happened to include one of the most game-changing forces we’ve seen in college basketball in 20 years. We may go 10 or 15 years without seeing another player like Anthony Davis, and I think it’s at least fair to speculate that if, instead of Davis, Kentucky had some other more “normal” McDonald’s All-American like, say, Rakeem Christmas, the Jayhawks would have been the ones cutting down those nets last night.
The point here is not to take away from Kentucky’s well-deserved championship. And just save it with the “It’s going to get vacated anyway” stuff. Nobody cares. The point here is that this sort of proved you could win a title with a bunch of freshmen, but what it really proved is that you can win a title with Anthony Davis.
And let’s pause for a second to observe that it isn’t like Cal invented this. You know who else has tried to win that way? Bill Self. You don’t believe me? Kentucky started two guys last night that Self tried hard to get. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were big fish in KU’s recruiting pond. Self tried hard for John Wall, too. He did get Xavier Henry and Josh Selby the last two years, and if he could have signed Austin Rivers and LeBryan Nash, he darn well would have. Everybody would have. Nobody ever has inferior players as part of their coaching philosophy.
John Calipari has not re-invented the wheel, and if he is at Kentucky for 20 years he will win more national championships, but more of his teams will be like last year’s UK team than this year’s. This year’s team was stunningly talented, unusually mature and extremely well-coached and that’s why it won the national championship. But it was anomalous and it is about to completely disintegrate. And Kentucky will bring in another great class, probably headlined by the No. 1 player in it, Shabazz Muhammad. And Kentucky will be excellent again next year, most likely.
But it is not going to have Anthony Davis, and probably some other team is going to win the national championship. Probably some team with a couple senior starters and a couple young stars and some dude who can shoot the petals off a rose.
And what then?
Will Calipari stop trying to get all the players? Will the rest of college basketball adopt the new (old) model? Will players once again see Kentucky as a place where you can ball out but won’t ultimately win?
What will have changed? Calipari didn’t need a championship in order to attract guys. He was getting all the guys anyway. Terrence Jones went on national TV and committed to Washington, and Calipari still got him.
I mean, he can’t sign every single player, although I am sure he’s trying to find a way to do that right now. And every recruiting class isn’t going to have Anthony Davis in it. Every recruiting class will have a John Wall in it, and Cal is going to get him more often than not and so Kentucky will be a monster of a basketball program for the foreseeable future.
So what’s really changed again?