On Tuesday night, No. 3 ranked Kentucky lost to No. 9 ranked Duke, and it didn’t mean a thing.
OK, for the pollsters, commentators, tournament selection committees, and fans, the game meant something. As for how the game effected the landscape of college basketball, only one team that played in that game will actually matter come seasons end, and it isn’t the group from tobacco road, North Carolina. If this Kentucky team can make it to the Final Four come early April, John Calipari will have permanently changed the landscape of college basketball.
This year's Kentucky team, just like last year's, is almost entirely composed of freshmen players. These freshmen, also like the last year's team, were almost all 4- and 5-star high school recruits that have definite shots at success in the NBA. Whether those players make the jump next year or the year after remains to be seen. Yet, if last Tuesday's game is any indication, this team could be headed in the same direction as it’s predecessor.
Last season was Kentucky coach John Calipari’s crowning achievement, not just because he won his first national title, but also because his theory of placing talent over experience and even coaching had finally bucked the establishment. Calipari himself is a very good coach, but even he has said it is always going to be about his players. In placing a singular emphasis on recruitment and development for the NBA level, Calipari has made Lexington, Kentucky the place to go for the countries next NBA generation of talent.
The strength’s of this year's Duke team, like many who hope to be dancing late in to March, is it’s senior leadership. Over 80% of Duke’s first 40 forty points in the Tuesday game against the Wildcats were scored from Duke seniors Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly. Until last season, when Kentucky's mostly freshman team won the national championship, experience along with coaching, hard work, and strong guard play had been the foundations of Final Four teams for decades, but Kentucky is marginalizing college basketball assumptions.
That’s not to say that those factors still can’t play a role in teams successes going forward, but Kentucky has now proven that those factors are not essential. The biggest question mark for last season's national champion Kentucky team was at point guard. Even though freshman guard Marquis Teague was a first round NBA draft pick, he, like the rest of the team, was a mostly untested 18-year old.
There are still strong, elite programs in college basketball. Many teams, including North Carolina and Kansas, have followed a similar format: bring in as much NBA caliber talent as possible, coach the talent, allow them to develop, and hope it produces a national title in their sophmore or junior seasons before they all jump ship fro the pros.
What separates Calipari from Kansas coach Roy Williams, Duke coach Mike Krzyewski, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo? It is Calipari’s willingness to commit a personal focus to his players. Players at UNC, Duke, and Michigan State play for those coaches and programs, and have goals that are team-oriented. The hubris of those three coaches, amongst others, is that they are so concerned with their own programs, records, and legacies that talented players with difficult personalities are ignored. Coaches in college basketball can spew rhetoric all they want about building men of character, and programs that stand the test of time, but looking at the rosters of those programs, how many of those players have the pedigree to play in the NBA?
The 2012-2013 Kentucky team may not have the same talent as last season's team. But after watching that game last night, it is impossible to deny their potential . It has taken Duke four years of battling in the ACC, through the NCAA tournament, and playing out of conference showcases just like this one, and they still only won a close game by 7 points. In essence, Duke has a ceiling. It is possible they catch fire, and grow as a team, as many teams do throughout the course of a season. The problem is we know where Duke’s talent level is.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has the ability to grow by leaps and bounds. Avoiding the sloppy play, turnovers, and experience that is necessary to win at the highest level will come in time. If it does come this season, other elite programs are going to change the way they themselves coach and recruit.
The game will no longer be about playing for coaches, their systems, and their histories. All that will matter for the student-athletes out there is "what school best prepares me for the NBA?" The rest of the country needs to figure it out, and fast, because right now the only answer to that question is Kentucky.