Kentucky’s title begins new era in college hoops

It’s a strange feeling to dread the NCAA National Championship game.

The Final Four should be a celebration of a sport rich in tradition and lore: the culmination of a basketball season that is founded on principles of integrity, discipline and hard work — traits that its professional counterpart can’t exude.

But the integrity and glory of college basketball seemed distant during the Final Four proceedings last weekend. As the Kentucky Wildcats cut down the nets Monday night after a decisive championship victory over Kansas, I sat in my apartment living room and watched in dismay.

This really, truly happened?

To be fair, the Wildcat players wielding those scissors after the championship game unquestionably earned it. Observe Kentucky for even a small stretch of time and it becomes increasingly apparent that this team operated in a different echelon than the rest of college basketball this year. There’s a grace in watching the team impose its indomitable will upon an inferior team. And the rest of college basketball was all inferior.

Anthony Davis out-rebounds you. Doron Lamb out-shoots you. Terrence Jones out-muscles you. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist out-everythings you. Then, in unison, they collectively out-defend you. This blend of talent and chemistry demands championships.

My unease with Kentucky’s championship begins with the realization that its six-man rotation of mostly freshmen and sophomores will not be on the team next year. Instead, the players will feed into a pipeline straight to the NBA, whether they’re ready or not.

This pipeline is overseen and was essentially constructed by Wildcats head coach John Calipari. He lures in top recruits with the notion that he will send them to the NBA immediately after their freshman year. Though this type of “one-and-done” courtship is within NCAA regulations, it renders the student-athlete into simply an athlete, showcasing them as a means for profit instead of representatives of higher education.

For years the NCAA title has eluded Calipari as if the basketball gods were preventing a total bastardization of the purest form of their sport. Two of his previous programs even had its Final Fours vacated, cementing his ambiguous recruiting practices despite any tangible evidence against him.

But the basketball gods could not impede this version of Calipari’s pre-NBA team, and Monday’s outcome ushered in a new era of college basketball. How long will this era last, though? The NCAA can’t idly stand by and watch athletes forego their educational responsibilities because of what is essentially a loophole in the system. NCAA brass has a decision to make in the very near future on how it wants to handle the NBA age limit in regards to student-athletes holding up the “student” end of the bargain.

Meanwhile, Calipari’s NCAA title run presents an eerie binary with a local college basketball figure in Champaign: former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber.

Weber provided ample reasoning for athletics director Mike Thomas to fire him, but it wasn’t an easy move. Weber maintained a .675 winning percentage in his tenure at Illinois. More importantly, he graduated an extremely high rate of his players from one of the finest public universities in the country and did so without a hint of a recruiting violation.

The above criteria normally would be the formula for a successful college basketball program, in terms of both athletics and academics. It’s how Gene Keady spent 25 years coaching at Purdue.

But the above criteria was not enough for Weber to keep his job.

Implicitly, this decision paints Thomas as a proponent of winning above all else. Thomas would refute this notion, of course, and for good reason: It’s probably not true. But it does signal a changing landscape in college basketball, and the terrain is rocky.

Coach Calipari has his coveted title now and will be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time great college basketball coaches. His reputation as an NCAA violation waiting to happen will subsist, though, and will continue to polarize college basketball fans. The product on the court is a wonder to behold, but the dealings off the court are murky.

The college basketball gods were never keen on Calipari before this year, and my gut tells me they will restore balance eventually. Everyone loses if they don’t.

_Thomas Bruch is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch._