Yin and yang in the Final Four

John Calipari says he wants talent over experience.
John Calipari says he wants talent over experience.
Posted: April 02, 2011

HOUSTON - The best basketball player among the four college programs in contention for the national championship is a 6-foot-11 freshman from Istanbul, Turkey, who is expected to be taken early in the first round of the NBA draft this year.

It's not surprising to find a great basketball player coming out of a Final Four school, but Enes Kanter won't play a minute for the Kentucky Wildcats this weekend and hasn't played one all season. Instead, Kanter has served as a "volunteer coach" because he was deemed ineligible by the NCAA for the minor complication of having played professionally in Turkey.

Every program in the country would have loved to have him, but few bothered to recruit Kanter because his little issue was well-documented. That didn't stop Kentucky coach John Calipari, however. He enrolled him - there's Enes right there in the preseason team photo - and challenged the NCAA to do something about it. And this time it did.

That bump in the road hasn't kept Kentucky from the Final Four. And however it might have looked, it didn't matter much to Calipari, who is making his third trip as head coach to this event with his third school. The official NCAA record book doesn't see it that way, since both of Calipari's previous appearances, with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, have been expunged due to significant rules violations that occurred on his watch.

The flip side of portraying this Final Four as a feel-good special because of the presence of two mid-major Cinderella teams is that someone has to play the part of the wicked stepsisters - and, boy, the casting's not bad for that, either.

Jim Calhoun, coach of the Connecticut Huskies, has never had victories that were removed because of recruiting or rules violations, but he won't be on the bench for the first three games of the next Big East Conference season because of a slimy bit of business concerning a former recruit named Nate Miles.

The NCAA investigated for two years, concluded that Calhoun's program was guilty of "failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance," and slapped the coach's wrist despite evidence that seemed to call for harsher sanctions. Maybe you can explain away phone records that show 2,000 calls and texts between the coaching staff and an agent - a former UConn team manager - who was handling Miles, but the explanation seems obvious.

"I'm comfortable with my university, how they handled it, how the NCAA handled it," Calhoun said Friday. "I didn't say I agreed with everything, but I was in charge of the program, [and] the program made mistakes."

Of course, neither Connecticut nor Kentucky is unique in either its pursuit of the best talent in the country or in its desire to keep the players eligible. The big programs at the big conferences all have to swim through the fetid waters of the AAU system to attract the attention of players, and have to deal, either overtly or covertly, with the friends, advisers, street agents, and manipulators who have guided the best-of-the-best since their preteen years.

They only have to do it if they want to compete every year at this level, but it turns out that most of them do.

"The thing we're trying to do, which is to be the best, I really believe you have to have the best players," Calipari said Friday. "You want to be the best, it ain't [about] coaching 'em up. You can play that game if you choose to . . . you know, coaching mediocrity, getting guys to play hard, and they're a good team."

For teams such as Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, which will play the junior-varsity semifinal Saturday evening, that's the only choice. Few of their players are in danger of jumping early to the NBA, but few will lead to recruiting violations, either. Nine of the 10 players who get the most playing time for Butler and VCU are either juniors or seniors. By comparison, UConn and Kentucky each will start three freshmen in their semifinal.

A major college basketball program is a hungry beast to feed because the best players don't hang around and the recruiting process is so voracious every year. In the 2010 NBA draft, five Kentucky players were taken in the first round, and four of them were freshmen. That isn't a formula for getting to the Final Four the following season, as the Wildcats have done, but it forces coaches like Calipari to bring in players like guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones as one-year rentals. Both are expected to be high first-round NBA picks in June.

The exception to the rule in the Kentucky-Connecticut game is UConn junior Kemba Walker, who, in the absence of Kanter, will be the best player on the court. Walker exploded into prominence this season after landing a spot on just the all-Big East third team as a sophomore. If the explosion had happened a year earlier, he wouldn't be here, either.

"If you have talent that is experienced, you'll win all your games," Calipari said. "But if I had a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, I'm taking talent every time."

So, although it's nice to look at Butler and VCU - both great stories, both very good basketball teams - and declare that is how college basketball should be, it's more realistic to look at Kentucky and Connecticut and say that's what the game really has become.

Two representatives of each world are here for the Final Four. It's an interesting balance, and the matchups guarantee a similar dichotomy in the championship game Monday night. But don't fool yourself that a sea change is taking place in college basketball. This won't happen again any time soon. When in doubt, as the man says, go with talent.


Bob Ford:

NCAA Men's Final Four In Houston

Saturday

 Butler vs. VCU, 6:09. TV: CBS3

Connecticut vs. Kentucky,

40 min. after first game. TV: CBS3


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, and read his blog at http://

www.philly.com/postpatterns

 

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