Writers and commentators always look for narratives when talking about games like the one that will be played tonight at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. At first glance, it might not seem as though they’ll need to look very hard. When Kentucky knocked off Wisconsin by a point in the final seconds of Saturday’s Final Four game, they created a new army of UConn fans, plenty of whom would struggle to find the state of Connecticut on a map (it’s the tiny one near New York that isn’t Rhode Island.) It’s tempting to paint these teams as polar opposites, and in some ways they are. There’s a seasoned senior leader versus a group of highly recruited freshmen with their sights set on the NBA. There’s a young coach at the reins of his alma mater, versus the entrenched basketball Godfather who sold his services to the highest bidder. Hell, there’s even cats versus dogs. But as self-evident as those comparisons are, they turn the game into yet another treat from the “David versus Goliath” cookie cutter. Isn’t it possible that fans could enjoy the game more by just taking it for what it is? No one involved in the game is a Biblical figure; they’re all just people. And the things you should know about these people are a lot different than what you’ve likely heard so far.
Watch ESPN or listen to talk radio and you’ll hear the phrase “1985 Villanova” come up often, in reference to the time when eight-seeded Villanova vanquished Patrick Ewing, David Wingate, and top-seeded Georgetown in the championship game. Another eight seed is involved in 2014’s title game, but this year, that team is the one carrying the list of players who will likely become familiar to NBA fans in the coming years. Although it was the lower-seeded team in four of its five tournament wins, Kentucky has consistently played the villain, a role it cemented two weekends ago by knocking off Wichita State in the second round.
Ask any of Kentucky’s detractors why he or she isn’t feeling any love for the Wildcats, and the answer will be “something something John Calipari something something” about 97 percent of the time. The slick-haired Italian-American drew the ire of basketball fans even before he went to Lexington to join the biggest basketball program east of the Mississippi. The NCAA has vacated his wins twice: once when he was with UMass in 1996, and again in 2008 when he led the Memphis Tigers and their awful free throw shooting to a runner-up finish against Kansas. Calipari’s departure from Memphis was conveniently synchronized with the fallout from Derrick Rose’s scandalous SAT scores. He has coached 13 “one-and-done” players in his previous four seasons at Kentucky, which has caused some to question his commitment to the already dubious concept of coaching “student athletes.”
Despite his team’s recent success, Calipari still takes guff from Kentucky’s own fans. His reliance on freshmen has made it difficult for the team to sustain success from year to year, as evidenced by the Wildcats’ rocky regular-season performance. His team is coming together at just the right time, but could have been just a loss or two away from not even getting a chance to prove itself outside the NIT. It remains to be seen whether a Kentucky championship would cool or fuel talks of Calipari defecting to the NBA, but that chatter is always out there. As long as Calipari remains the great basketball coach that he is, it will persist, and that lingering threat of upheaval is too much for some Kentucky fans to take.
Although it’s often justified, the criticism of Calipari frequently loses touch with the aforementioned fact that he’s a great basketball coach. Sure, few mediocre coaches ever give fans cause to raise so many middle fingers in their direction. But those with only bad things to say about Calipari seem to believe that his success comes solely from Kentucky’s recruiting. Worse yet, he brings out the basketball conspiracy theorists, who insist that referees and NCAA executives are eager to support him on his quests for championships (an idea that, predictably, has spread in the wake of Kentucky’s razor-thin margins of victory in the tournament.) The Wildcats play by the same rules as any other team, and they play hard. They play tough defense, even though that style won’t be particularly useful to the players during their NBA careers. Lately, they’ve been playing as a team, in a cooperative dynamic that was likely absent from most of their high school squads. None of the players can singlehandedly dominate games in the way that so often happens at the prep level, and Coach Calipari has made his players cognizant of this fact.
In comparison to the Wildcats, the Connecticut Huskies might seem a good fit for the Cinderella label. In 2012, just two years removed from the conclusion of his NBA career, Kevin Ollie took control of his former team from an ailing Jim Calhoun. Ollie’s 16 years in professional basketball, which began in the now-defunct CBA and included stints on thirteen NBA teams, were somewhat of a fairy-tale story in themselves. At 6’2″, the point guard was undersized even for his position, and was never the most athletic player on the floor. His season averages never exceeded 26 minutes or eight points, but his career persisted thanks to some rare combination of intelligence, work ethic, and goodwill. Even his name is fun to say (try it!)
Ollie’s Huskies are in the championship game a year after the virtual dissolution of the behemoth Big East, and are now part of the weirdly eclectic American Athletic Conference, and are the first Connecticut basketball team to have a conference rival in Dallas. Their best player is Shabazz Napier, a guard whose four-year stay in college might be almost as long as the combined collegiate careers of Kentucky’s starting five.
But those hoping for UConn to take out Kentucky with its slingshot are forgetting that Jim Calhoun built up a massive program during his 25 years with the team, a program that has won three national titles in a 13-year span. A program that incurred investigations, sanctions, and suspensions, just as John Calipari did at Memphis. It may not have had great seasons in 2012 or 2013, but UConn is not some scrappy upstart looking to shock the world, despite what the hype machines at ESPN and CBS are spitting out from their circuitry. Last September, Sports Illustrated ranked the program 13th among all schools, and downgraded it for a “somewhat unproven” Kevin Ollie, a demerit that wouldn’t apply if the programs were re-ranked today. Kentucky ranked second. Connecticut may not be quite as high up in the pantheon as its opponent, but the team is far from a schnauzer nipping at the Wildcats’ ankles.
Tonight’s game between Kentucky and Connecticut will feature quite a few of the country’s best collegiate basketball players, two great coaches, and thousands of crazy fans wearing two different shades of blue. Why should we turn it into “Paradise Lost” on hardwood? Sure, John Calipari might not look out of place practicing his maniacal laugh in the shrouded high-rise offices of a corporation. But Kentucky’s players and coaches are not mustache-twirling villains. Most of them don’t even have mustaches, let alone the kind of mustaches that can easily be twirled. One thing that is true about Kentucky is that a bunch of its 19-year-old players worked hard to start playing great team basketball, despite having relatively little incentive to do so. Most of the 19-year-olds I know can’t even get out of bed in time for dinner.
The Connecticut Huskies do not represent the last line of defense for virtue, righteousness, and ice cream cones. Neither did Wichita State, or Mercer, or the Ed’s General Store softball team, whose beer-aided sluggers bravely succumbed to the Walmart team in the Wyoming Retail Softball Championships. It would be nice to see UConn win, and I’ll be pulling for them, but a Kentucky win would not be a metaphor for all the world’s suffering. It’s just a game; sometimes the big guys win, sometimes the (relatively) little guys do. If Kentucky wins, it has to defend its title next year, and that won’t be easy. I hear Houston Baptist is going to have a very good team.