An Unhelpful College Basketball Preview

Coach Cal

“Revenge is like serving cold cuts.” – Tony Soprano

An editor at Tuesdays with Horry reported to me a few weeks ago that University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was spotted at a Dunkin Donuts in the Big Apple. Unless Calipari was hammering out a point-shaving deal with the Five Families (not unheard of in UK basketball history, and not above the suspicion of the editor who told me about the Cal sighting), his squad this year promises to be nearly unstoppable. The problem with UK’s team last year was that, with the exception of Kyle Wiltjer (who has since transferred to Gonzaga), the team was a mix of highly touted but underperforming freshmen. While people claim that such is always the risk with Cal’s rip-and-run, one-and-done recruiting philosophy, they fail to realize that last year was the first where Cal had to deal almost exclusively with freshmen: the three previous teams had veterans like Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller to provide some level of cohesion amid a sea of talent. No one would seriously argue that Willie Cauley-Stein is Patrick Patterson, but we’ll take the former when we have a historically talented recruiting class coming in, even without Andrew Wiggins. The SEC and the country as a whole is on notice: UK is coming for revenge, and I don’t anticipate it being pretty.

UK basketball does of course raise the typical questions about the NCAA, recruiting ethics, etc., that get people riled up. Conventional wisdom holds that Cal is trying desperately to undermine the moral foundation of college basketball, if not American society altogether. I stand by my argument that there is an ethics in Cal’s recruiting, even if it emerges accidentally and secondarily, even paradoxically. He may be selfish; he may only care about basketball; he may even bend the rules. Cal may do and be all these things, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t burden athletes who have no business being in college if they don’t want to be with the pressure to stick around and wait for an injury, if not a degree. That pressure emerges from the rhetoric of institutions, a rhetoric that appeals to community, solidarity, and team spirit (words that make me all tingly inside but that present ethical and political problems of their own) but that really wants to exploit labor. I just want to point out that we need smarmy figures like John Calipari —though his generosity has also been well-documented — just like we need an overprivileged jerk like Johnny Manziel. These are the only people who are going to be able to expose the NCAA for what it is. If you hate the NCAA — and it seems like today everyone does — then you have to seriously consider the strategic value of the Caliparis and Manziels of the world.

Anyway, I don’t have much more to say about the actual basketball part of the upcoming season. As long as UK has a point guard other than Ryan Harrow, it should be fine. I can’t wait to start yelling at the TV.

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