Sixty-four games down.
Three to go.
We are just days away from crowning a national champion in college basketball after a tournament that had a little bit of everything. While I would guess 2012 will be remembered as the year of the comeback (BYU vs. Iona, Kansas vs. Purdue, Louisville vs. Florida), I will also remember it as the year of the struggling giants (similar to the acting careers of Gheorghe Muresan and Shaq).
If not for some fortuitous officiating going Syracuse’s way against UNC Ashville (and by fortuitous, I mean blatantly egregious and Donaghy-ish), the Orange would have become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. The Orange also barely snuck by Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 thanks to a disastrous last possession for the Badgers. North Carolina lost Kendall Marshall, barely survived Ohio (no, I didn’t forget to write “State”) and lost to Kansas (who should have lost to Purdue). A gritty top-seeded Michigan State team was no match for Louisville and Duke and Missouri were home in time to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Yep, it was a rough year for all the big boys in the school yard. Except for Kentucky, who gave all the other kids swirlies and wedgies with no repercussions.
The Wildcats look absolutely unbeatable at this point. They were utterly dominant through their first four games. Anytime Iowa State, Indiana or Baylor made a run I assumed it was because Coach John Calipari asked his team to take their foot off the gas for a few minutes, just so the NCAA wouldn’t launch another investigation against him. Every other collegiate team in this tournament has looked susceptible to defeat at some point. Clearly Kentucky is no ordinary college team.
And that is why the Wildcats cannot win it all. They must not. Louisville, Ohio State or Kansas must save college basketball for all of us. For the sake of everything we believe about sports. We love the tournament because we trust that chemistry, true belief and perseverance wins championships. That is why the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XVII. That is why the Pistons beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. That is why the Mighty Ducks beat Iceland in the Jr. Goodwill Games. In those instances, even the individual greatness of Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Gunner Stahl were not enough to overcome the cohesive power of a better “team.”
And that is why you absolutely cannot root for Kentucky, and why I’ll be left with the taste of vinegar in my mouth as I watch Coach Cal and Mr. Uni-brow Anthony Davis embrace one another on the podium during “One Shining Moment” on Monday night. Because it will prove that in real life if you want to win a national championship, you don’t do it with a team full of Goldbergs, Fultons and Charlies. You do it with a prize pool of one-and-done Gunner Stahl-stars.
I know it seems like I am picking on Kentucky, but just take a look at some of the other “elite” programs who don’t experience nearly the level of “one and done” that Kentucky seemingly celebrates. Tyler Zeller (Sr.), John Henson (Jr.) and Harrison Barnes (So.) all continued at North Carolina. Jared Sullinger (So.) and Thomas Robinson (Jr.) came back to Ohio State and Kansas respectively.
There is a reason those kids all came back to school—to go to a Final Four and to win a championship. Consider the last five tournament champions and what they all had in common, leadership from upperclassmen:
Connecticut, 2011- Kemba Walker (Jr.); Duke, 2010- Kyle Singler (Jr.), Nolan Smith (Jr.); North Carolina, 2009- Tyler Hansbrough (Sr.), Ty Lawson (Jr.), Wayne Ellington (Jr.); Kansas, 2008- Mario Chalmers (Jr.), Brandon Rush (Jr.); Florida, 2007- Joakim Noah (Jr.), Corey Brewer (Jr.), Al Horford (Jr.).
So if Coach Calipari actually encouraged his players to stick around and the 2012 Wildcats possessed a roster that looked something like this…
Starters: PG John Wall (Jr.), SG Doron Lamb (So.), SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Fr.), PF DeMarcus Cousins (Jr.), C Anthony Davis (Fr.)
Bench: Brandon Knight (So.), Eric Bledsoe (Jr.), Terrance Jones (So.), Enes Kanter (So.), Marcus Teague (Fr.) and Daniel Orton (Jr.).
…then I wouldn’t be upset at all when they beat Ohio State 153-46 to win the title. Just like the 2005 and 2009 North Carolina teams, it would be a joy to watch a dominant team actually dominate. Because those Tar Heel teams earned it. A Kentucky team that fields a new group of super hero freshmen every year hasn’t earned a championship in the traditional sense.
And I don’t blame Wall, Cousins, Knight or Davis. If you know you are only going to play college ball for a year, why wouldn’t you go play with a bunch of other five-star blue chippers at Kentucky who are in the same boat and play for a coach who welcomes one-year wonders with open arms (unlike Izzo, Pitino and Roy Williams). Especially if there’s proof that method you can win a championship.
And that is the key. To this point, there has been no proof. The other championship-caliber coaches still have a chance to sway these players to their schools if winning is truly important to them. While there is no denying Calipari produces more top-flight NBA talent than every other university combined, he has not delivered a championship.
There are still players who value winning above all else, and would rather spend their one year in college playing with juniors and seniors who have team chemistry and for a coach that’s won the big one. If Coach Cal can capture his first title on Monday night, there is basically nothing stopping him from world domination.
If you watched the McDonald’s All-American game this week, you may have seen an interview with Shabazz Muhammed, the No. 2 ranked high school player in the class of 2012. He has yet to sign with a team, but has narrowed his search to Duke, UCLA and Kentucky. In the interview, Muhammed came off polished, articulate and humble. His talent is undeniable, and he will undoubtedly be a one-and-done player next year, but his game and personality suggests he values winning above all else.
When Coach Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats finally break through and win the championship Monday night, I think it is safe to say that Shabazz will not be taking his talents to Durham or Westwood next season.
It will be just the beginning for John Calipari, and the beginning of the end for the rest of us.
The Mayans must have been college basketball fans.