Is Kentucky Killing College Basketball?
On Saturday, Kentucky will probably win its 29th game of the season against a ranked Arkansas team, and in the days following, the Wildcats will likely defeat Georgia and Florida, the remaining two programs on their schedule, to become the third team this century to finish a college basketball regular season with an undefeated record.
The other Division I teams to go undefeated through the regular season in recent years were St. Joseph’s (in 2004) and Wichita State last year; this Kentucky team is obviously completely different, in that it feels less like an aberration and more like an inevitability. If the Wildcats beat Arkansas and Georgia, they’ll have 12 wins against teams in the RPI top 50; seven of their 10 wins against those teams to date came by double digits.
They are the most talented team in college basketball this century, and even though we’ve been building to this point for several years – even though Kentucky has been rutting through the upper echelons of college basketball for the past few seasons, based on John Calipari’s ability to recruit pretty much any teenager with a jones for the NBA, and even though the debate over whether this is problematic has been going on long enough for it to turn in upon itself – it still feels oddly uncomfortable, like watching someone punch in a cheat code on a video game.
This is the deepest squad Calipari has ever assembled, a band of near-interchangeable underclassmen who will all be playing professional basketball next season, if they so choose. The other night against Mississippi State, the Wildcats got 18 points from a freshman named Trey Lyles, who was averaging roughly eight points per game this season; their leading scorers, Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker, are each averaging only 11 points per game, and 10 players average at least 12 minutes of play in every contest. Given that depth, it will be a complete shock if the Wildcats don’t win the national championship this spring; it will be a minor shock if they somehow manage to lose a game in the next few weeks, before the NCAA tournament, and don’t become the first NCAA Division I men’s team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated through an entire season.
Part of the angst about Kentucky’s dominance has nothing to do with the Wildcats themselves, or with Calipari’s methods; part of the problem is that Kentucky has found a way to dominate in an era when college basketball itself is mired in sluggish and largely unwatchable play. These two things are not completely related, but they’re not totally unrelated, either: There is an overarching sense that high-level college basketball has lost its way largely because of the one-and-done rule that has benefited Kentucky so greatly. And so I think what people see when they watch Kentucky is a betrayal of our illusions about college sports; I think Kentucky’s naked capitalism feels so discomfiting because it doesn’t bother to really even hide behind the veil of amateurism.
This gets back to our eternal dilemma with college sports; we want to see the things we expect to see, even if we know those things we’re seeing are illusory. In February, Jon Solomon of CBS Sports reported that college conference commissioners were considering a reinstatement of freshman ineligibility rules. This is a brainstorm largely directed at college basketball; it is a reform that is meant to target a team like Kentucky most of all. I imagine there’s at least a little bit of altruism behind it, an attempt to better the academic prospects of the African-American athletes who are often exploited for their talents, as some in Solomon’s story noted; but it also feels like the sort of hypocritical half-assed gesture that makes college athletics feel like such a contradiction.
The problem is, I’m not sure how you go back at this point. From a competitive standpoint, I don’t really enjoy watching Kentucky, largely because it feels like the ultimate conflation of college basketball into a professional enterprise. I’d rather watch a game between two very good mid-major teams that feels wholly like college sports. I don’t want this future; I don’t think anyone outside of Lexington wants this future, either. But college sports are a business, and the same commissioners who are now seeking a way to pull back are the ones who transformed this into a business in the first place.
It’s possible that the best thing for college basketball would be an undefeated Kentucky team. It’s possible that the Wildcats going undefeated would force an open debate about the future of the sport itself and the future of college athletics, and inspire us to find a sensible middle ground between commercialism and education (if there is such a thing). Maybe Kentucky forces a re-examination of all that. But I’m guessing that’s nothing more than an illusory notion, too.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb
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