On Wednesday night, the 2014 McDonalds All-American Game pitted 24 of the nation’s top high school stars against one another in another ballyhooed all-star exhibition. This year’s exhibition only featured four members of basketball's top boy band rock stars heading to Lexington as opposed to the six conspicuous high school seniors, including five of the top 10 ranked players that graced the floor one year earlier.
Already Calipari’s Lexington Six have caused more upheaval than Bébé's kids. Somehow they emerged from the Midwest region of death as champions with the same eight seed Rollie Massamino's overmatched Villanova Wildcats carried on their bullet ride to becoming the lowest-seeded national champion in tournament history. Likewise, Kentucky's 'Cats won’t die. They just multiply. One month ago, Kentucky was 21-8, having just been waxed by South Carolina and Arkansas in consecutive games.
Before the tournament tipped off, I was convinced that a 30-second Tanqueray commercial held the answer to what had been plaguing John Calipari for the past two seasons at Kentucky. In my smug, self-important opinion, he was overly dependent on one-and-dones instead of providing insurance in the form of proletarian program guys who could provide stability.
The process of program-building dictated that freshmen were h’ors d’oeuvres, but not a four-course championship meal to be devoured in one sitting. In the sagacious words of fictional gin pitchman Tony Sinclair, “Always in moderation.” The Fab 5 were an exception to the rule, but John Calipari became the myopic, gluttonous guy at a cocktail party balancing three plates of shrimp. The obvious analogue to Kentucky is Michigan's Fab 5. He’s taken Steve Fisher’s Fab 5 formula one step further by turning his program into a freshman foster home.
Before the NCAA Tournament tipped off, I discussed Kentucky's dilemma with Turner's college basketball sage Seth Davis and TNT’s NBA personality Charles Barkley during CBS’ pre-tournament Media Day. Both had opinions that varied on extreme opposite ends of the spectrum.
Davis was adamant about the required presence of veteran upperclassmen leadership in contending team’s locker rooms.
We echoed ideas about the 2012 team buoying a rare talent in Anthony Davis with supplementary freshman star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, senior Darius Miller, in addition to sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.
“I’ve had this debate with John Calipari. I’ve sat with him in the bleachers of recruiting tournament and said, ‘why don’t you recruit guys who you know are going to stay four years. And his answer is because I’m trying to win a championship.” said Davis.
I get it. All those freshman, every coach in the country tried to recruit them. Coach K wanted ‘em, everybody wanted them. It’s hard to do it exclusively with freshmen.” Davis added.
Sir Charles derided the idea of recruiting too many one and dones like I'd suggested Mr. T's A-Team was more influential than the Dream Team.
“Dude, if a McDonalds All-American wants to come to Kentucky, you can’t say naw I got enough of ‘em.”Barkley quipped.
I tended to side with Davis and believed that the transfer of junior forward Kyle Wiltjer and junior guard Ryan Harrow, who had endured and learned from a turbulent season had an adverse effect on Kentucky’s season.
Harrow was the NC State transfer who never fit the mold of a Calipari Kentucky point guard. After Kentucky’s loss to South Carolina, Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde tuned up his vocal chords and joined the chorus of Calipari’s critics and cited his dismal season as a comeuppance for his tough treatment of Harrow.
After witnessing Harrow’s 37-point performance in the Sun Belt Tournament final, I was even more confident in my convictions. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s talented roster lacked chemistry and was skidding on black ice towards the SEC Tournament. In retrospect, I was grasping at theories trying to explain the unexplainable.
I like to eat my crow with a side of foot in my mouth. Calipari’s philosophy ultimately has won out as the Wildcats came one possession away from finally upsetting Florida’s senior citizens in the SEC Championship Game and now find themselves 80 minutes away from a national championship.
The Fab 5’s chief rival during the ’91-’92 season was a Duke squad that was their culturally paradoxical to what they represented.
Twenty years later, Duke has rushed head-first into the one-and-done pit by recruiting Kyrie Irving, (possibly) Jabari Parker and future Durham vacationers Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor. Within Kentucky’s own conference, Florida’s roster is the antithetical to Kentucky Fab 7. Chris Walker, their only potential one-and-done freshman has played fewer than 20 minutes in every single tournament game.
EDIT: My mistake, what I meant to say was that he's played fewer than 20 minutes in the ENTIRE tournament.
Kasey Hill was a McDonald’s All-American alongside Kentucky’s starter, but he’s also serving as senior Scottie Wilbekin’s backup. Sophomore Michael Frazier could use this season as a launching pad into the first round, but his draft status could also benefit from returning from one more season.
The freshman phenom is more prevalent these days, but Kentucky is the freshman franchise. Kentucky's freshman coup has phased out 2012 McDonalds All-American Alex Poythress, who is averaging half as many points as he did during his freshman campaign and was likely part of the reason junior Kyle Wiltjer transferred during the season.
“We’re doing what we can do with where we are,” Calipari said. “The rule is not my rule. 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.”
As a result of the inverted power structure that has seen players exit college campuses as one-and-dones or two-and-through at a much more frequent rate, lineups rife with upperclassmen starters have replaced star-laden rosters as the top tournament teams.
Take a gander at the Final Four’s other three teams and you’ll notice how unique Kentucky is.
Florida’s senior citizens are the only team from the six conferences that have won the last six national championships to start four seniors. Wisconsin is a unique foe whose best player Frank Kaminski, was a reserve for his first two years. UConn’s Wizard of Shabazz has been majestic leading the Huskies on the tournament’s most enjoyable ride towards an even more unlikely championship, but Kentucky’s kids have grown up quickly.
Since the NBA instituted the 19-year-old age limit in 2005, the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats are the only team spearheaded by a freshman to win the Final Four. The 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes featuring the Mike Conley, Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and David Lighty quartet took the nation by storm and fell just short against Florida’s repeat bid in the title game.
Calipari’s Memphis Tigers squad led by Derrick Rose tripped up against Kansas in the ’08 National Championship Game, but his blue collar supporting cast was brimming with blue collar “program players”. It was junior Jayhawks point guard Mario Chalmers who drained the high arching trey which sent the championship into overtime. Bill Self’s most recent tender footed Jayhawks squad could have benefitted from an experienced point guard with deep range accuracy to take the season’s last gasp three against Stanford. Self could have used a junior that could make any three for that matter would have helped. En route to the national championship, the Tigers dispatched of Kevin Love and the UCLA Bruins in the national semifinals.
The hand he’s been dealt has resulted in an unprecedented reshuffling of the deck from year-to-year for Kentucky’s roster. In a few years, you’ll be able to fill out a 68-player bracket comprised of Calipari players in the League.
"I am more relaxed,"Calipari said in defense of his X’s and O’s coaching acumen, "because I know I don't have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate, taking five bad shots. I'm not dealing with that anymore. This team has been empowered now and now I can just coach basketball."
Without Willie Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats are missing a rim deterrent. However, Calipari’s bench sprouts freshmen multiply like charges on Gucci Mane’s arrest record. Dakari Johnson has delivered both in the post and in the postgame.
The best option for the seven-footer is to return for another season of refinement at Kentucky.
Since Cauley-Stein injured his ankle in the first half of the Sweet 16 against Louisville, Johnson has gone 11 of 15 from the field, grabbed nine boards and become the leading quote producer for Kentucky.
After Aaron Harrison’s cold-blooded three gave Kentucky the Midwest Regional Final win over Michigan, Johnson delivered the quote of the year.
“He’s got big nuts, to be honest,” Johnson said. “He can’t even walk right now.”
Marcus Lee, Kentucky’s 6-9 freshman pogostick power forward is the one renowned for his crushing rejections. After averaging 18 points, 20 rebounds and eight blocks per game as a senior at California’s Deer Valley High School, Lee has been even more of a bystander this season than Johnson because of Kentucky's depth. Lee and Johnson may wait until their sophomore years to really standout or scouts may view their tournament appearances as enough proof that they’re worthy of first round grades.
Julius Randle will continue snatching rebounds off the boards while the Harrison twins and James Young keep warm from their perimeter hot spots. The Kentucky machine just keeps on spinning. In his first major minutes of the season since December, Lee scored 10 points and grabbed seven offensive boards in 15 minutes off the bench against Michigan.
Calipari’s '96 Final Four UMass squad, which has been stricken from the record books, would disagree about this being his best coaching job ever, but what this season has done is rescue his reputation.
Harrow’s season ended in the first round of the NIT for the second straight year. Instead of questioning the quality of Calipari’s coaching acumen, he’s converted the masses and has Temple of Calipari agnostics such as myself questioning their own silly assumptions.