Billy Reed: A Big Blue Post-Mortem

Here’s Billy Reed’s analysis of the state of the UK basketball program after Saturday’s disappointing one-point loss to Connecticut in the Final Four in Houston.

Calipari's second team was un-UK-like

Lexington, Ky., is about the last place in Basketball America where you would expect to find a team that’s easy to wrap your arms around and love like an underdog. That’s because University of Kentucky basketball long has been the poster child for overemphasis. Going back to 1930, when Adolph Rupp began building the game’s first national dynasty, to Saturday night in Houston, when John Calipari returned UK to the NCAA Final Four, Kentucky’s obsession with being No. 1 has led to all manner of well-documented excesses.

Right now, for example, plans are being laid for a new arena that will surpass the $248 million KFC Yum! Center in Louisville that now is home to UK’s most hated rival, the Louisville Cardinals. Work also is being completed on the $8 million Wildcat Coal Lodge, an on-campus palace that both will provide five-star housing for the basketball players and honor the coal industry that has raped the mountains with strip-mining. In protest, the noted conservationist and author Wendell Berry, who received a special award earlier this year from President Obama, withdrew his personal papers from the UK library, a gesture that didn’t draw nearly as much attention in the commonwealth as the news that center Josh Harrellson likes to wear jeans shorts (jorts).

It’s not that Calipari’s program needs a new arena or a new lodge. To the contrary, 23,500-seat Rupp Arena still is one of the nation’s biggest and best, and the current basketball players are housed in a lodge that regular students can only dream about. But “need” is a relative term to Big Blue fans, who just can’t stand to think that anybody, especially Louisville, has something that’s bigger or better. So even though the state treasury is broke and government has cut a lot of important services to taxpayers, money still is no object when it comes to UK basketball, thanks to the coal operators, thoroughbred breeders, and bourbon whiskey barons who have supported the Cats for decades.

Although many outsiders view this value system with a mixture of scorn and disgust, Big Blue Nation dismisses such criticism as merely a matter of envy. And they are convinced that rival programs, the NCAA, and the national media are involved in a vast conspiracy to bring the Cats to their knees. That’s how they react when columnists bring up Calipari’s past brushes with NCAA investigators or raise questions about possible recruiting violations. So it was hardly surprising that when the NCAA declared star recruit Enes Kanter ineligible for receiving extra benefits while playing in his native Turkey, the radical fringe of Big Blue nation declared it to be a case of Enes envy and promptly fired off some threatening e-mails to the president of the NCAA.

For UK’s detractors, last season’s Wildcat team was symbolical on several levels of all that’s wrong about UK basketball. Like most of the Wildcats’ previous national championship teams, it had a huge talent advantage over everybody it played (freshman point guard John Wall was the first pick in the NBA draft and four of his teammates also were selected in the first round). It had four freshman one-and-done players, which the critics felt exposed UK forever as a basketball factory that had little regard for academic integrity. And, of course, it was coached by Calipari, whose previous two Final Four teams (UMass in 1996, Memphis in 2008) are now listed as Vacated in the record book because of rules violations – none tied directly to Calipari – discovered after the fact.

The marriage between Calipari and UK was made in Big Blue Heaven. Like Rupp, Calipari has an arrogant defiance about him that Wildcat boosters love. When it’s written that he “pushes the envelope” or “operates in the gray area” of recruiting, the UK faithful see that as an asset, not a liability. Over the years, going back to UK’s involvement in the point-shaving scandals of the early 1950s, UK fans have never been adverse to bending the rules or, in some extreme cases, breaking them. They just hate to get caught. So the sly Calipari, who knows to dribble-drive past the posse, was a perfect fit.

If last season’s team was built around players who were little more than mercenaries, that was OK in Big Blue Nation. Heck, UK was caught paying players under Rupp, Joe B. Hall, and Eddie Sutton. So the Wildcat faithful generally see the one-and-done rule as a necessary evil, even a fair trade, and they want their coach to exploit it to the hilt, even if it means having guys like Worldwide Wes, the notorious flesh peddler, hanging around the UK program.

But last season, just when it looked as if UK had bought itself a championship, a funny thing happened on the way to the trophy presentation. In the regional finals, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins threw up a 1-3-1 zone that completely bewitched, bothered, and bewildered the future NBA draft picks, who were eliminated a game short of the Final Four.

Undaunted, Calipari reloaded with three high school superstars – Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb – and the ballyhooed Kanter, who was being touted as an NBA lottery pick even before he left Turkey. The questions concerning his eligibility were no secret, which is why just about everybody except Washington backed off him, but Calipari decided he was worth the risk. So Kanter reneged on his commitment to the Huskies and showed up in Lexington, hoping that Calipari could find another loophole in the rules.

Outraged when the NCAA did what almost everybody outside Kentucky figured it would do, which was declare Kanter ineligible, the irate UK fan base couldn’t see that not having Kanter opened the way for one of the best human-interest stories of the seasons – the emergence of 6-foot-10 Josh Harrellson from hopeless bench-warmer to viable NBA prospect.

While being banged around in practice by future pro DeMarcus Cousins last season and Kanter this season, Harrelson got in shape, improved his agility, and learned to play within himself. He became the poster child for fundamentals and smart post play. He also became the linchpin of a UK team that came to be admired, even by its critics, because it had flaws and shortcomings that Calipari had to overcome with some of the best coaching of his career. The Cats started strong, seemed to fall apart while losing six close road games in the Southeastern Conference, but then came together at the end to win the SEC tournament and roll through its first four NCAA tournament games, including an upset of top-ranked Ohio State in the regional semifinals.

Rightly or wrongly, Calipari decided midway through the season that he was going to go with six players instead of developing a bench. Besides the burly senior Harrellson, who brought to mind Jethro in the old Beverly Hillbillies television series,  the six-pack included 6-2 freshman point guard Knight, a better outside shooter than Wall and an honor student who seemed to really like going to class; 6-9 freshman big man Jones, who often seemed more interested in shooting threes than using his breathtaking quickness around the hoop; 6-2 freshman shooting guard Lamb; 6-6 junior DeAndre Liggins, a head case under former coach Billy Clyde Gillipsie who turned into a team leader and ace defender; and 6-7 junior wingman Darius Miller, the only native Kentuckian in the bunch and a reluctant hero who drove Calipari nuts by passing up a potential game-winning shot at Ole Miss.

Although Knight was consistently outstanding and precociously mature, the Cats didn’t really have a star the caliber of, say, UConn’s Kemba Walker or BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. Every game somebody different would step up to make the big shot or the big play. Their lack of depth, which had left them panting and vulnerable at the end of their SEC road losses, never was a factor in either the SEC or NCAA tournaments. As a result, their run to the Final Four, while not as shocking as VCU’s or Butler’s, nevertheless showed the world a different type of UK team. Heck, there weren’t even any clouds hanging over their heads until the rapper Jay-Z, who owns part of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, showed up in their locker room after the regional final win over North Carolina.

Before the Final Four, outgoing UK President Lee Todd, who was criticized by some observers for hiring Calipari, couldn’t resist gloating to his critics, saying something to the effect that there would be no “vacated” to UK Final Four appearance. It was faintly reminiscent of Rupp’s infamous claim, after the point-shaving scandal broke in 1952, that the gamblers “couldn’t touch my boys with a 10-foot pole.”

At the time Todd made his comments, there were no clouds over Calipari. However, on the day of the Final Four, Fox News reported that the NCAA was checking out the legality of some phone contacts he had with Cousins shortly after taking the UK job.

Next year, of course, it will be back to business as usual for the Wildcats. No matter who decides to go pro – and Knight, Jones, Lamb, and Liggins all are candidates – Calipari again is bringing in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. He’s perfectly willing to sacrifice continuity and experience for sheer talent. He says he personally hates the one-and-done rule, but will take advantage of it as long as it’s on the books. If UK has to start over almost every year with virtually an entire team of freshman superstars, that’s what Calipari will do, with the full support of the UK rooters who are addicted to the recruiting industry.

So the legacy of this team, the one that barely fell short against UConn in Saturday night’s semifinals, was that it was a Big Blue aberration. Instead of a mercenary machine, it was flawed and vulnerable and short-handed. It was very un-UK-like, in other words, and that’s why even Wildcat haters had to tip their hats, however grudgingly, to the team that will be remember, more than anything, for the center in jorts who escaped the bench and became a star.