John Calipari Wins An Unlikely Supporter

I don’t exactly fit the profile of someone who would have a sympathetic view of John Calipari. I spent the early 1990s at Indiana University, with its heated rivalry against Kentucky. I’m from southeastern Wisconsin, home of the Badger team that played two straight epic Final Four games against Kentucky in 2014-15. The college basketball I enjoy watching the most is when you can watch kids come into a program and grow together—not exactly the one-and-done of Calipari’s Kentucky.

If college basketball coaches had to win votes the way politicians do, I wouldn’t be on the radar of Calipari strategists. But the Kentucky coach’s approval rating in my eyes is on the upswing and last night in Memphis only added to that.

The reason is simple—I’ll always take an honest rogue over a preening hypocrite.

I don’t like the one-and-done culture that Kentucky basketball has become, but the reality is that it’s the NBA’s fault. There’s nothing wrong with a talented kid wanting to go straight to the pros, but the league insists on using college basketball as a proving ground to showcase them for a year. I also fault the NCAA for allowing its member schools to be used as minor leagues for the NBA rather than an association with a rich tradition all its own.

None of that is John Calipari’s fault and while I don’t like the system, it’s also not immoral either—we’re talking about what age players should go to the NBA at. It’s not life and death, and therefore I think it’s entirely reasonable for Calipari to simply play by the rules as they are rather than resist.

Calipari’s offer to recruits is honest—come to Kentucky, play for a year and he’ll get you in good position for the pros. There’s no exploitation going on here, just a mutually beneficial relationship under the system as presently designed.

Contrast that with North Carolina, the team Kentucky will play for a Final Four spot on Sunday afternoon. The Tar Heels have gotten a lot of mileage out of being a program that presumably cares about their players—at least until the recent academic scandals showed UNC was simply using its athletes to win games, unconcerned about whether they actually prepared themselves for life after college.

Calipari is also a better coach than he’s given credit for. I was watching the FS1 talk show with Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock and “The Herd” was talking about how Calipari has won “only” one national title in spite of all the talent he has. Of course he’s also been to three other Final Fours with Kentucky and another with Massachusetts, and also managed to put together an perfect regular season with mostly freshman back in 2015.

Kentucky did not have the best talent on the court last night against UCLA. The Bruins were bigger and more physical inside and in Lonzo Ball had what should have been the best player on the floor. Instead, De’Aaron Fox stole the show from Ball and Calipari sent Steve Alford—a genuinely overrated coach—home.

Now it’s on to North Carolina for a rematch of the incredible game the two schools played earlier in the year, won 103-100 by the Wildcats when Malik Monk dropped 47. If I would have watched this matchup as a kid in the 1980s or even post-college through the 1990s, I’d have been rooting for North Carolina—the program I thought did things “the right way.” Instead, I’m pulling for the Rogue of Lexington, Calipari himself to send Roy Williams packing.