At this time one year ago, the University of Kentucky was in a quandary. The Wildcats were desperate. They needed a new coach. More than that, they needed a coach that would have an immediate impact. One that would win right away and win big.
One coach can play that game better than the rest. So it was obvious what had to be done. UK needed to throw the bank at Memphis' coach, John Calipari.
You see, Kentucky is not just another college basketball program. Kentucky and its fanatical base see themselves as THE college basketball program. Somehow the world will spin off its orbit if UK doesn't win a title every four years. Kentucky not winning is immoral. It's not permitted. Something had to be done. Something drastic.
You see, Kentucky hasn't won an NCAA Title since 1998. At your school that may not be a big deal. At UK, it's time to panic. Especially when 1998 was UK's last visit to the Final Four. That just will not do.
Tubby Smith was the coach who felt the "Wrath of the Big Blue Nation" first. He was the coach in 1998. And even though he took the Kats to the national title, he had the misfortune of being the guy who took over for UK legend Rick Pitino.
Pitino had coached UK to the previous two NCAA title games, winning the first and losing the second in overtime to Arizona. So Tubby of course inherited a stacked roster. Or so the Big Blue Nation claims. The fact is that team did not have one All-American on it. And yet Tubby took them all the way.
But he would get that far no more. And the five regular season SEC titles and five SEC tournament titles he won in the 10 years on the job were not enough. Twice Tubby got them to the Elite Eight. Once he lost to Dwyane Wade—no shame in that—and the other to Tom Izzo—also no shame in that.
But the fans were not satisfied. Among their main complaints were that Tubby ran a deliberate style. He emphasized defense and the half-court game. A typical Tubby score was 65-62. Kats fans complained it was boring. They complained that top-flight talent did not want to play that style. So Tubby had to go.
Billy Donovan, fresh off of back to back national titles, was first on the UK wish list. He did the unthinkable. He said no. To make matters worse, several more coaches also said no. WHAT?? People are turning down Kentucky? By the time someone expressed interest it was down to John Calipari.
"John Calipari? That guy is too sleazy. We're Kentucky. We can't hire him. He'll have us on probation in no time. How about the guy from Texas A&M? He's turned them around."
So Billy Gillispie was hired. That was a train wreck. He was in so far over his head from the very start, he couldn't see the sun with a telescope. Right off the bat UK loses to Gardner Webb. WHO? They were losing to anybody and everybody. They managed to salvage year one with a decent SEC record. It got them an invite to the NCAAs. But they were quickly dispatched in the first round.
Year two went much the same way. VMI came into Rupp and shot the lights out. Only this time the Kats struggled in the SEC, too. The Kats were relegated to the NIT. The Big Blue Nation demanded blood. Athletic Director Mitch Barnhardt, not wanting the blood to be his, finally held his nose and hired Calipari.
You see, Coach Cal knows talent. He has "people" who can get the talent to come his way. Cal has learned how to make the system work for him. The NBA and NCAA, in order to try and co-exist, came up with this ridiculous one year rule, to ensure that there would be no more Kobe Bryants and LeBron James's skipping out entirely on college basketball. High school players can no longer enter the draft until the year after their graduation.
Cal has embraced this rule while other coaches have not. He courts the "one-and-done" players. He marries them. He builds his program around them. It made Memphis an annual contender. Which is great for Memphis. Memphis does not demand championships. Without this talent, Memphis is a bubble team.
But now that he has been one year on the job at UK, how is this going to work there?
Last year Cal hauled in not only the best class of the year, but maybe the best ever. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins could be starting in the NBA this year. Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe are also sure-fire first rounders. Now, it appears, they are off to the NBA.
UK and Cal will still be able to haul in a No. 1 class this year. At least six, and maybe eight blue-chippers are just waiting for the current Kats to declare for the draft and they will beat a path to Cal's door. But how far can they take UK in one year?
If this group couldn't go all the way, then what chance does the new class have? I don't care how good Brandon Knight is; he's no John Wall. There will be no Cousins coming in either.
If this team couldn't go all the way, then why would they expect next year's team to do it? They can't. No team made up of mostly 18-year-olds, no matter how talented, is going to run the table at the NCAA tournament. To win the whole thing, there has to be some upperclassmen on the court.
Somebody has to have been through the wars before. Somebody has to calm the kids down, make sure the team doesn't panic and go into the tank. Somebody has to stop the bleeding. It has to start with making sure the kids don't start buying into the hype. Don't listen to Dickie V picking you to win it all. Without some senior leadership, the first time you face a team that matches your talent, you're in big trouble.
What this one and done thing is doing for Cal is it's making him the highest paid coach in the game. But it's not hanging any banners in the rafters. It's not putting any rings on his fingers. How many years of having supreme talent with not much to show for it will the Big Blue Nation put up with?
Will Calipari have to change his strategy? Will he have to let a Brandon Knight go elsewhere to try and find a point guard who will stay around? If so, how does that affect his "talent advantage"? Some claim he is not a great "X's an O's" coach. It is said he wins instead with better "Jimmys and Joes".
In the end, who are the winners here? UK fans? Maybe. They get to watch a lot of talent come through. But what about the disappointment of watching them come up short? And then to watch them all take off and another new group come in? What happens when they also come up short?
How about the players? Well let's think about it. How much money did it cost Wall and Cousins to win the SEC? Because that's all they got. They won't be remembered among the all-time greats at UK. Those guys are champions. Not just of the SEC either.
College basketball? Maybe. But how much would it suffer if Wall and Cousins were in the NBA? Was it really that bad that LeBron and Kobe never played in the NCAAs? I seem to remember it was still a pretty big deal.
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