Two distinct paths to the Final Four

Posted: April 04, 2014

DALLAS - The favorites at this Final Four could not have been built any differently. Florida starts four seniors and a sophomore. Kentucky starts five freshmen.

Therefore, Florida coach Billy Donovan must stand for truth, justice, the American way and, of course, academic integrity while Kentucky coach John Calipari must be gaming the system, having his school act as a station stop for players taking a few classes on the way to the NBA.

To accept the narrative, you must also believe that the revenue-producing college sports are about something other than revenue. If you believe that, you need to rethink your position.

Here is my advice: Just enjoy the two Final Four games tomorrow and the championship game Monday. Stay away from the morality play. It is a waste of your time. And we don't really know what is happening behind the curtain anyway.

They will play the games in a giant dome that will seat 77,000 people paying anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand for the seats that, if they are lucky, may come with a view of the court that does not require high-powered binoculars.

Donovan won national championships with sophomore and junior NBA lottery picks in 2006 and 2007. Calipari won with two freshmen lottery picks in 2012.

The Florida coach did not know that Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer would turn out to be college stars and NBA mainstays. He was just trying to put together a team. He ended with a transcendent group that played the game brilliantly and won back-to-back.

The Kentucky coach did not plan any of this. He never had these kinds of players at Massachusetts, where he took a woebegone program and made it a national power. He did not have these kinds of players at Memphis until Derrick Rose signed on in 2007.

Calipari did not draft all those players in the 2010 first round. He just signed and coached them.

"When John Wall and [Eric] Bledsoe and [De Marcus] Cousins and [Patrick] Patterson went in that draft, [Daniel] Orton, five first-rounders, it changed the whole direction," Calipari said. "The paradigm changed. It wasn't like we planned it. I never thought Eric Bledsoe was one and done. No one thought that. He didn't play the McDonald's game."

What happened was the best high school players, who wanted to go straight to the NBA but could not, saw that draft. They saw a 1-year apprenticeship at Kentucky, a chance to play at the highest level, maybe even win a national championship.

So they went to Kentucky - Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the 2012 champions, the Harrison twins, Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson, the five freshmen who will start in the second game of the Final Four against Wisconsin, the "greatest recruiting class in history."

Florida is just built differently, but if any of these UK freshmen had wanted to play for him, do you think Donovan would have turned them down?

"There's been some times we've recruited against them on some different guys," Donovan said. "Our paths maybe haven't crossed a lot."

Their paths have crossed three times this season and Florida won all three, but the Gators were hanging on in the SEC championship game, the Wildcats with the ball and a chance to win in the final seconds.

"Probably early on in their careers I was talking over their head and they didn't understand it," Donovan said of his veterans. "And that's probably my fault, but you try to give them some things and through their experiences, they have a better understanding sometimes of what you're talking about."

Seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather all got better together. Sophomore shooter Michael Frazier was the missing piece.

Calipari no longer has the benefit of time, but he does have the luxury of talent. His freshmen were clueless most of the season. The coach railed at them, publicly chastised them, wondered aloud what he was doing wrong.

"I wish we could have skipped steps in the process," Calipari said. "Probably was trying to do that, which is why I did such a poor job early with this team. I was probably trying to skip steps. But in the end we got the plane down barely. We almost ran out of runway. This team was built up to be torn down. I always wonder if it's the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team. But they withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered. They kept believing."

The coach stopped talking about what was wrong and started coaching, the most underrated part of who he is. Cal designed a way to beat the Temple zone at UMass. He changed a few things and found a way to coach this team to play brilliantly against 75 percent of the 2013 Final Four, eliminating Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan in 8 days.

"People are saying, 'Boy, he looks more relaxed,' " Calipari said. "I am more relaxed because I know I don't have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate, taking five bad shots. I'm not dealing with that anymore. This team has been empowered now and now I can just coach basketball."

And that really is Calipari's genius. He can coach basketball, just like Donovan can coach basketball.

"This is the hardest place to come and play basketball," Calipari tells his recruits. "If you think this is going to be easy, don't come here.''

The second piece of it is, if you want to be the only guy that can play, don't come here. If you want to take all the shots, go somewhere else.

"If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys. If you want to go there, go. That's not how it is here. Every game is the Super Bowl. You're scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you're going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me. What we're doing has never been done. You can't do this. So you're getting that hit. If you can't deal with all that, don't come here. That's a heck of a sale, isn't it?"

It is if success on the court is the bottom line. This will be Kentucky's third Final Four since 2010, the year when those five went in the first round. This will be Florida's fourth Final Four this century so it is working well there, too. If the favorites win tomorrow night, everybody can gear up for a Monday night morality play. You would be better off just watching the game.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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