I don not particularly like John Calipari. I don't like his teams, I don't like the coincidence that he leaves schools right before wins get vacated, and I don't like his faux modesty in every interview I've ever seen him give. Seriously, I don't understand how the Kentucky fan that runs the DaggumRoy Twitter account can stand listening to his own coach profess to not know what seed his team is two hours after his selection show. I'll be grudgingly rooting for Kansas tonight, and I'm no fan of the Jayhawks either, so that tells you something.
Even so, will a Kentucky national championship ruin college basketball. Chuck Klosterman thinks so, and said as much in a widely–discussed piece on Grantland last week.Basically the argument is that Calipari has professionalized college basketball with a reliance on transitory, one-and-done players, and by validating that approach with a national championship, the other powerhouses of basketball will follow suit, including "North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, UCLA, and maybe even Duke." (The fact that Duke is higher up in the moral firmament of Klosterman's mind is laughable to anyone who has spent time around the program in Durham, but so be it.) Suddenly the future plays out like this:
These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen, but they'll have to go further; they'll have to be as transparent about their motives as Calipari is (because transparency is the obsession of modernity). If they resist, they will fade. And the result will be a radical amplification of what the game has already become: There will be five schools sharing the 25 best players in the country, and all the lesser programs will kill each other for the right to lose to those five schools in the Sweet 16. It will skew the competitive balance of major conferences and split D-I basketball into two completely unequal tiers. Final Four games will look more and more like sloppy pro games, and national interest in college basketball will wane (even if the level of play technically increases).5 In 10 years, it might be a niche sport for people like me - people who can't get over the past.
Let's start out by putting some numbers Calipari's reign of terror. His first recruiting class had four freshmen who went pro after the 2010 Elite Eight season: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton. (They were joined by junior Patrick Patterson.) The next year had one, Brandon Knight, although in theory, this could have been two, as Calipari recruited Enes Kanter only to have the NCAA declare him ineligible. He was drafted higher than any of his three teammates who also went pro (two more Billy Gillespie recruits were also selected, after the senior and junior seasons, respectively.). This year's team has three freshmen everyone assumes is going pro, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Anthony Davis, plus two sophomores he recruited also expected to leave once the nets have been cut down, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. All in all, three years in Lexington will likely produce 14 NBA players at minimum, 11 of which Calipari brought to UK.
That's an impressive three–year performance. If you go back further you can add to the list one-and-dones Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, and Shawne Williams, plus five non-freshmen players he recruited at Memphis going back to the 2004 draft. That's 22 pros over a nine year stretch. Of course, in that same time period UNC will have sent at least 15 players to the NBA (with two one-and-dones), Kansas probably the same, and Duke 11 (with three one-and-dones). In short, "These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen," rather understates things.
Now most coaches don't like their players to only stay for one season. Krzyzewski, of course, won't shut up about how it's bad for college basketball, although he pitches it to potential students. I don't know where Calipari recruiting spiels fall on the continuum. I don't think he "adapted faster" than everyone else to a new landscape, I think he recruited the best players he could find. It's burnt him in the past, with Derrick Rose and Marcus Camby, but it's also gotten him a lot of success, although not an NCAA championship.
But you can only do so much with a constant influx of new players, which leads to the flaws in Klosterman's prediction of a dystopian college basketball future. One, there's a limited number of players who can jump to the pros immediately, and they don't all want to jockey for playing time at the same few schools. Two, divining which players are the magic bullet is tougher than it looks. Harrison Barnes was a pre-season All-American (and at least one guy's POY) who only really came into his own with the right pint guard and certain game situations. Kyrie Irving never played in a Duke-Carolina game and finished his college career in a Sweet Sixteen game. His replacement brought to Duke one dagger of a three, a bad attitude, and a first-round tournament exit. (Someone should look for a pattern in point guard sons of NBA pros.) Even Calipari is having his greatest success because of two sophomores, who stuck around with one lone Gillespie recruit to provide a core to build around.
Look, there's a reason NBA teams don't release half their squads every year and try to buy up the best free agents they can. Excessive personnel turnover is just as bad for a basketball team as excessive ball turnovers. One-and-dones provide lots of risk to any team — look at the 38 wins that are no longer a part of Memphis basketball .And recruiting isn't going to change if Kentucky cuts down the nets tonight. Coaches will still promise NBA glory everywhere — you think Michael Jordan and his 39 fellow alumni to go in the 1st round of the NBA draft are plastered about the UNC media guide for their health — and players will still select schools based in part on the professional opportunities that may await them. Calipari has had an impressive three-year performance, but he hasn't revolutionized the game; he hasn't even reinvented the wheel. Most NCAA champions are built around a core of upperclassmen, and this is the same panic we were hearing back in 2003 when Carmelo Anthony was bringing Syracuse a title. The next one-and-done freshman to win it all did it from the bench, because UNC was so reliant on its upperclassmen that Marvin Williams couldn't get into the starting lineup. It will be this way again, never fear.