Saturday, April 2, 2011

Final Four

The Final Four really worked itself into appropriate matchups: on one side, you have the youthful, fresh-faced coaches leading untainted, underdog teams (we never scrutinize them as much—has there ever been a hated underdog in sports history?); on the other side, you have the old money, corrupt coaches leading old money schools. The very coaches’ physical appearances seems to verify that: why, you have John Calipari, who looks like the personification of a fat cat; on the other hand, Jim Calhoun looks like an abusive, mean bulldog.

Like the worst of old money, Calipari and Calhoun have more fallen into success than acquired it by virtue of skills we’d like to celebrate. It’s beyond obvious that Connecticut will have to vacate its performance this year, and one always suspects that a John Calipari school will end up paying a price sooner or later. But it’s more than that: both men are not actually good coaches. Good recruiters, but not good coaches. Calhoun is a decent coach; Calipari is not. Calipari’s teams are not so much built as hastily thrown together; Calipari, given the ability to convince just about anyone to join his team, invariably chooses all the really hyped players with all of the discretion of a blind man given a Neiman Marcus gift card and half an hour without a guide to shop. This Kentucky team is one of the first to avail itself of the techniques known as “quality shooting” and “team play” and at times actually featured some compelling passing and off-the-ball movement. But Calipari teams in general have typically relied on whatever freshman happens to transcend his fellow hyped players and become a juggernaut: Rose. Evans. Wall/Cousins. Said freshman usually ends up throwing himself against an arrayed defense, which usually gets to focus on one or two players because Calipari steadfastly refuses to recruit actual shooters. Not one, really?

Then there’s the dumb moments. Calipari should have had a national championship by now—after a really impressive win over one of the best college teams I’ve ever seen (the Darren Collison/Russell Westbrook/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute/Kevin Love team. That’s four NBA starters, two seemingly-inevitable perennial All-Stars, one guy who’s destined to make a few All-Defense teams, and one solid NBA starting point guard. Crazy stuff. Plus that, they played a tightly-knit, aesthetic brand of basketball. Why high-level recruits aren't punching each other out to play for Ben Howland and instead prefer to play for jokes like John Calipari and Rick Barnes is one of the enduring mysteries of the universe.)—his team should have beaten Kansas, but didn’t when they allowed Mario Chalmers to take an open three to tie the game. For one, the defending was poor. For two, you have to foul there. It’s automatic. Calipari teams routinely have such brain farts: tonight his team was undone by poor decision-making on offense, and a bizarre foul with forty-something seconds left that betrayed a certain lack of court awareness (especially since Calipari had just conferred with his team).

You might dwell on the unethical moments of Calipari if you must; most of that falls on the NCAA’s foolish moves. Except one: Kentucky recruited Turkish center Enes Kanter, who will be a top-five NBA draft pick this year, despite having missed an entire year. Why? Kanter was a professional with his Turkish team, something that was obvious before Kanter even got to school. So it should have been known that Kanter was not going to be able to play this year, yet he was recruited and decided to come anyway. Part of the blame falls on Kanter and his advisors, who probably should have known better. But Kanter is young and his advisors may be foreigners who don’t really know the rules. The real blame has to fall on Calipari, who must have known that Kanter in all probability wouldn’t have been eligible and recruited him anyway. What did Calipari tell Kanter? Somehow I suspect it wasn’t “Enes, you’re almost certainly going to sit out this entire year, jeopardize your draft status and keep you totally out of practice when you actually do step on the court.” More likely Calipari recruited Kanter on the off chance that he could sneak Kanter past the NCAA, which was of benefit to him but totally unjust to Kanter.

Most people would probably prefer that the face of college basketball were Butler: a bunch of nice guys playing decent basketball because they really enjoy it. But the other face of college basketball is John Calipari’s jowls shaking as he barks some command that’s probably BS at his players, some of whom don’t want to be in college at all and won’t learn anything academic or basketball-related, and like Janus each face looks out at the same time and neither can be denied.

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