I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending John Calipari.
With the long week before the National Semifinals, columnists around the country have been laying into Calipari, saying if Kentucky wins the National Championship with their Rent-A-Star system, it’s going to somehow destroy college basketball.
I don’t get it.
What is Calipari doing that every coach of an elite program hasn’t been doing for 20 years? Just because he is less shameless and more successful at restocking his starting five each year doesn’t somehow make his actions different, or more dangerous, than other coaches who have been chasing one-and-done talent.
On Grantland, Chuck Klosterman submitted the argument that a Kentucky win will set off a nuclear arms race amongst the top 5 programs. No longer will each big time school try to sign one or two elite talents and build around them with kids that will remain in college for 3-4 years. Instead, he insists, those schools will divide up the top 25 recruits each and every year.
This ignores the fact that it’s not always up to the schools where recruits go. Sure, recruits from across the country develop relationships in summer leagues that didn’t exist a generation ago, and are more likely to coordinate their college decisions than was possible in the past. And kids generally want to win more games than they lose.
But, just as they do now, there are always kids who want to do their own thing. Whether they want to be the man and not have to share the ball with four other elite recruits, or they want to stay close to home, or they’re just not comfortable with the pressure playing at a top 5 school brings, there will be recruits that decide to go to second and third tier schools. Kentucky’s success isn’t going to change that.
The argument also suggests that Bill Self, Thad Motta, Rick Pitino, etc. would somehow have turned down a recruiting class of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer last year. Nonsense. If any coach had the opportunity to sign those kids, regardless of who was on their roster already, they would have jumped at the chance. And they would have worked their ass off to follow that class up with another loaded class, knowing at least two of them would be gone the next fall.
Listen, I’m no fan of Calipari. I think his methods are cynical and do go against what college basketball is supposed to stand for.1 But what the sport is supposed to stand for went out the window long ago. To argue that Kentucky winning a title with a one-year roster destroys the game ignores everything that’s happened since the Fab Five and the first billion dollar CBS contract.
John Calipari is the best recruiter going in the business right now. He’s found a way to leverage his strength in a way that gives his team a competitive advantage. Provided he’s not cheating to do it, which is a whole other conversation, I’m not sure why so many people are getting worked up about it.
- Of course, as a sport, the ultimate goal is to win. ↩