It's hard to judge the Kentucky Way
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Forty games. That's it. That's how long the Kentucky "career" of freshman forward Anthony Davis is expected to last if the Wildcats do what most bracketologists predict: run the NCAA tournament table and win the national championship.
Then Davis, surely the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft, will move on, replaced by another elite high school recruit with the same NBA dream. (Hello, Nerlens Noel?) This is the business model UK coach John Calipari has chosen and so far the results have been semi-spectacular.
If Davis leaves, he'll have spent less time in a Kentucky uniform than mint in a julep during Derby Week. We're talking about the Nov. 11 season opener against Marist to, if all goes well, the April 2 national title game. Less than five months.
Davis will be the best player on the floor Thursday evening when the Cats, the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, face No. 16 seed Western Kentucky at the KFC Yum! Center. He'll be the best player on Saturday too, and the following Friday in Atlanta at the South regional semifinal, and, well, until someone figures out a way to beat these guys. My office pool bracket says fat chance to that.
Anyway, enjoy Davis while you can. The same might go for fellow UK freshmen teammates Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Both are expected to dip their toes into the NBA draft pool, maybe even dive in.
Kentucky could have more player turnover than the "American Idol" judging panel. That's because Calipari has created a monster that must be fed. And no fan base has a bigger appetite for W's and Final Four banners than Big Blue Nation. It never gives up national championship expectations for Lent.
"My thing is these kids are chasing their dreams just like tennis players and golfers and geniuses and computer geeks and all the others," said Calipari, shortly before a glorified Wednesday shootaround in front of about 10,000 UK fans (they cheered every made 3-pointer!). "They're chasing their dreams the same way. And what we've got to do is come together and say, 'How do we do right by these young people? How do we make sure?"'
'The Last Great Game'
March 28, 1992. The final of the NCAA East Regional, Duke vs. Kentucky. Gene Wojciechowski's "The Last Great Game" is the definitive book on the greatest game in the history of college basketball, and the dramatic road both teams took to get there.
There is fine line between student-athlete, athlete-student and one-year mercenary. It is also the line that Calipari and other coaches must walk with care.
March Madness remains the college basketball version of Mardi Gras. It's wild (BYU overcoming the largest deficit in tournament history against Iona). It's unpredictable (Mississippi Valley State forgetting how to dribble a ball from here to there against WKU). But it's also suffering from a one-and-done hangover.
When was college basketball at its most accessible, most watchable and most endearing? That's easy -- when its best players stayed long enough that they didn't need a campus map.
Shaquille O'Neal stayed three years (three!) at LSU. Christian Laettner stayed four years at Duke. Ralph Sampson stayed four years at Virginia. Patrick Ewing stayed four years at Georgetown. Jamal Mashburn stayed three years at Kentucky.
I could go on. The point is, we got to know those guys and those teams. The college game was better because of it. And programs such as Kentucky weren't accused of being -- how did Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby put it in a recent USA Today story -- a feeder system for the NBA.
"We're here to educate young people, and that's what it ought to be about," Bowlsby said.
That's what it ought to be about, but who's kidding whom? If Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins had a 100 percent graduation rate and a 10 percent win rate, would Bowlsby give him a contract extension or a pink slip?
The game is in distress because the system is distressed. The NBA won't accept a player straight out of high school, but it will take a college one-and-done. The player agents like the economic churn, the commerce of it all. So rather than fight it, some coaches sell the idea of making dreams happen.
This isn't Calipari's fault. He works at what former UK coach Rick Pitino once called "the Roman Empire" of college hoops. He can recruit and sign the very best players in the country, and he does. If they stay longer than a season, it's gravy. If they bolt for the NBA, he can live with it.
"It's like last year -- Brandon Knight," said Calipari, referring to his freshman guard of 2011. "Brandon Knight was a 4.0 student and had 60 college credits after one year. That's two years of work in one year. But he was the seventh pick of the draft. How could you tell him to stay?"
The subject is a sensitive one for Calipari. When asked about it Wednesday, he turned to the NCAA moderator and said, "How long can I -- can I expound on this a little bit? Am I allowed to?"
Yes and yes.
So he did, saying that the NCAA should provide players with "the stipend they deserve." He also said that the NCAA ought to foot the bill for those Lloyd's of London-type injury insurance policies purchased by the families of qualified college players.
"The NCAA should pay that to encourage [the players] to stay," Calipari said.
He said the NCAA and the NBA should co-sponsor a loan program for the families of the top 30 or so players in the country. And he said that the NBA players union should endorse a plan that would reward a college star for staying in school at least two years (his rookie contract would be shorter) or for a diploma (a higher pay scale upon joining the NBA).
"Now we encourage these young people," Calipari said. "It's about them."
As the Wildcats completed their open practice, a sign stared down at them from the upper level of the Yum! Center. It read:
There are more than 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.
Not Davis. After five months, he's going pro in sports. And he won't be alone.
This has become the Kentucky Way. It isn't right or wrong. It's simply a by-product of a system in need of a mulligan.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Last Great Game," focuses on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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