Here's Johnny - Cal's Cats, Vol. 8
I've been asked by a prominent member of our community to write about the University of Kentucky Wildcats' men's basketball team. I got the message first thing Monday morning from P.C.S., whose identity will be withheld to protect her privacy. Ms. Seal made the first request in a late night message left on my work phone in the afterglow of UK's Friday night win over UCLA, the only school with more men's national hoops championships than Kentucky. After listening to it, I went on to the next voicemail. It was also from P. Carter S., a retired teacher who's active with the food pantry and other community groups, but would prefer her late night musings on my voicemail to remain anonymous. Her follow-up was left after UK's last-second loss to North Carolina, and I wondered at first whether she'd rescind her suggestion. Peggy Carter Seal hadn't changed her mind. She still thought I should devote these precious column inches to the eighth edition of John Calipari's Cats. Since she's awfully persistent and because I didn't have any great ideas of my own, I am doing her bidding. So ... I've got mixed feelings. The Cats didn't play their best Sunday, particularly the three freshmen who'll be millionaires in a matter of months, but they played hard, and foul trouble can happen to the best of us. A close loss in an Elite 8 game to a number one seed is nothing for fans or players to be ashamed of, though some of the former were no doubt hanging their heads Monday morning. Calipari is a Hall of Fame coach who clearly cares about his players, and he takes a lot of mostly undeserved heat for the "one-and-done" players he recruits each year. Calipari didn't make the rule that allows only 19-year-olds at least one year out of high school to play in the NBA - the NBA did, which effectively turned top NCAA basketball programs like Kentucky and Duke into pro farm teams. Besides, what coach would say to the best players in the country, "Sorry, kid, we're recruiting someone who's not quite as good as you?" When Cal's UK squads have lost in the NCAA tournament, it's been to teams with fewer future NBA stars, but more experienced players. However, I think even the most rabid Big Blue fans would have been quite happy to hear upon Cal's hiring that in his first eight years, he'd win one national championship and go to four Final Fours and six Elite Eights. They'd also have wondered how the heck someone got hold of a time machine, but that's another column. I read an article a day before the North Carolina game that pointed out that UNC, a school with a basketball tradition every bit as strong as UK's, has had only one one-and-done in the last 15 years. It also quoted head coach Roy Williams as saying he'd tried to recruit some of Cal's Cats, one of whom, Bam Adebayo, grew up in North Carolina. Big Bam was in tears after the game, and a few other Cats seemed inclined to join him. Cal's Cats have made deep tournament runs in six of his eight years in Lexington. The many young men he's sent to the NBA are making millions of dollars, and during their brief time at UK (nearly all were "one and dones") they seem to have behaved themselves well on and off the court. Speaking of off the court - or, rather, out of the classroom ... A few years ago, a UK player whose name I can't recall was shushed by a school employee when he began to speak about taking some of his classes via the Internet. I've no doubt that Internet classes are the rule rather than the exception for top Cats, and one could argue that with practice and away games, this is a good thing. Still ... aren't they missing an important part of the college experience if they rarely visit actual classrooms? (Note: During the five semesters I attended UK before joining the Navy, I didn't darken the doors of classrooms nearly as often as I should have - and I wasn't playing basketball. I was playing hooky. Thus the Navy. And thus me finishing my bachelor's degree at night whilst keeping our country free and stuff.) Of course, that's small potatoes compared to what happened not so long ago at UNC, where athletes from several teams were given good grades for non-existent or barely existent classes. Next year, UK will reload again. Another top recruiting class will make UK a preseason Top Ten team, and we'll once again hear Cal remind fans that he's got a young team. My hope is that the Aussie who had his best game as a Cat and a couple of other young players with talent stick around and blend with the next crop of one-and-dones. Maybe the Cats didn't go as far as their fans would have liked them, but there's been a heck of a lot more good than bad since John Calipari came to Lexington.