Like most coaches, John Calipari says he’ll take talent over experience. It’s hard to argue. Calipari has won 83 percent of his games at the University of Kentucky, with four Final Four berths in six seasons.
Yet for the second straight year, his young and lavishly gifted Wildcats were denied a national championship by an older, shrewder team. Last year it was Connecticut. Last Saturday it was Wisconsin, a squad full of crafty, rawboned fellows old enough to legally drink the beer their state famously brews.
Kentucky and Connecticut each played eight men in the 2014 NCAA championship game. The Huskies had 23 seasons of college ball under their collective belt. UK had nine. The Huskies won 60-54.
Kentucky and Wisconsin each played nine men in Saturday’s national semifinal. The Badgers had 29 years of experience, the Wildcats 15. The Badgers won 71-64.
The Cats had hoped to rewrite history and become the first unbeaten champion in 39 years. They penned a Fab Five remake instead.
Michigan’s famous freshman class of 1991 made two straight national championship games and was thwarted both times by a more experienced rival. The Fab Five boasted three first-round draft picks. UK’s roster boasts at least five. It doesn’t seem to matter. Unless the team is headed by a savant such as Anthony Davis, graybeards trump greenhorns, no matter how physically gifted the latter might be.
Crunch time for Big Blue’s greenhorns arrived on Saturday with 6:37 to play. Freshman power forward Karl-Anthony Towns had just made a turnaround jumper to stake UK to a 60-56 lead.
Because the Wildcats’ oldest and most decorated player was the subject of an Amber Alert – junior All-American Willie Cauley-Stein (two points, five rebounds) was mostly MIA – the Harrison twins were tasked with closing out the Cats’ 39th win.
Aaron and Andrew Harrison, sophomore guards who have started every game for two seasons, are what pass for grizzled veterans at UK. They weren’t nearly grizzled enough.
The twins boldly but unwisely took eight of Kentucky’s last 11 shots. They missed seven. Three were air balls.
More seasoned guards would have fed Towns until his GI tract exploded like the glutton in “Se7en.” A second team All-American, Towns is UK’s best offensive player. He scored a team-high 16 points Saturday, yet in the last 6 ½ minutes, he touched the ball only two times in scoring position.
Once he was fouled and made one of two free throws. The other time he was stripped of the ball; Trey Lyles recovered and launched a rushed shot that slapped off the glass – the last of three straight possessions that ended in shot clock violations.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, was conducting a clinic in old guy basketball, with junior forward Sam Dekker and senior center Frank Kaminsky combining for 10 points in a 15-4 run that torpedoed Kentucky’s unbeaten season.
Further proof of the Wildcats’ immaturity was supplied by Lyles, who is lucky he wasn’t ejected for his flagrant foul of Josh Gasser, and Andrew Harrison, who is lucky that Kaminsky is a forgiving guy. At the postgame press conference, Harrison, sotto voce, insulted Kaminsky with an obscene remark.
Neither incident is a calamity. Young men are prone to thoughtless, impulsive acts. Wisconsin players managed to avoid them Saturday, not because they have more class but more composure, a quality that comes with age.
Calipari is now caught between fire and the frying pan. He can’t turn down the 5-star recruits his program draws like flies, and he won’t discourage them from jumping to the NBA when the time is right. So he is stuck with a roster characterized by high turnover and low experience. That’s not how you win national championships. Unfortunately, national championships are the only prize that truly satisfies Big Blue Nation.
It’s fair to wonder if the one-and-done approach isn’t fatally flawed. If it is, it’s certainly a luxurious way to die. Calipari has made more Final Fours in the past five years than Rick Pitino has in the past 15. He owns the SEC and routinely beats the corpuscles out of blueblood programs such as Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina. He is 22-4 in the NCAA tournament at UK.
But the conqueror becomes the conquered when March turns to April. Precocity isn’t the same as proficiency. Sooner or later, Calipari’s wunderkinds collide with a team with the skill and moxie required to neutralize UK’s talent and exploit its inexperience.
Fourteen first-round draft picks have come through Calipari’s program so far; five more are in waiting. The current team boasts nine McDonald’s All-Americans. Calipari has turned Lexington into an El Dorado of basketball prodigies, yet only one championship banner has been hung.
By no means does this make Calipari’s method a failure. Far from it. But there appears to be a self-limiting aspect to his approach. It leads too reliably, almost predictably, to falling short of the summit.
Half of Calipari’s seasons at UK have ended with a surprising thud: the Elite Eight upset of the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins team in 2010; the first-round NIT ouster in 2013; and Saturday’s Final Four fizzle-out of an erstwhile juggernaut that was 38-0.
It might be time for Calipari to re-examine his approach, give it a tweak that promotes continuity and puts the emphasis on building the best possible team instead of collecting the most possible talent. The old approach has plateaued. If the rule you follow consistently falls short of your ultimate goal, of what use is the rule?
Falling short with a team that was gifted and gritty enough to go 38-0 is proof of the plateau that is hard to ignore. Saturday’s loss will be harder still to get over.