The NCAA Tournament and its single elimination system is what makes college basketball great. In a one game scenario, the impossible can happen. There is no room for error and a single mistake can be fatal for the best of the best, or the 16th seed who is just happy to be playing at 12:00 pm on a Wednesday. March is unforgiving, which is why often times, the best team does not win.
We saw this first hand, again, Sunday as the Kentucky Wildcats and Duke Blue Devils were beat by teams who, on paper, had no business winning. But it happens, and that’s okay, because basketball powers like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas consistently put themselves in positions to lose important games. Why? Because they keep playing in important games.
Take Tennessee, for example. Enjoying their second-best season in the history of their program, the Volunteers went home early with little discussion. Staying in the SEC, the Florida Gators, since winning back to back titles, have failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament four times and have lost in the opening weekend three times. Why does this go essentially unnoticed and talked about? Well, frankly, no one in the national media cares about Tennessee or Florida basketball. The same could be said about a number of other teams who have had some success within the last ten years.
The blue bloods dominate the headlines, they bring the ratings, they bring the news. Each year destination cities like Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago are infiltrated by fans from Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State and Kansas. They’re the show, they get the big arenas, and the primetime slots. But with that, they get the media – who we all know play favorites, and don’t attempt to hide it. The biggest beneficiary, Coach K and Duke.
Coach K is the golden boy of college basketball and a media darling. Since the 2009-2010 season, Duke has been eliminated from the tournament twice in the round of 64 and once in the round of 32. If you were to expand it to the last thirteen seasons, you may be surprised to find two more opening weekend losses for the Blue Devils. The only reason you may be surprised is because you’ve never heard about it.
The often-vilified John Calipari, a constant hit piece target, has only lost one opening round game in his twenty tournament appearances and four times to Coach K’s six in the round of 32. Since being hired at Kentucky, Calipari has lead the Wildcats to massive success reaching: seven Elite 8’s, four Final 4’s, one National Championship and the winningest records in College basketball. Coach K’s two championships compared to Calipari’s one is K’s only categorical win.
It took no time for USA Today national sports columnist, Dan Wolken, to pounce all over Calipari for yesterday’s loss to the Auburn Tigers. In typical Wolken fashion, he blamed Calipari and his one-and-done approach, ignoring the fact that Sophomore All-American P.J. Washington and grad transfer Reid Travis guided Kentucky to the Elite 8. Yes, Kentucky relied heavily on three Freshmen, but just three hours later when the number one overall seed Duke fell to Michigan State, they were just a flawed team that couldn’t shoot according to Wolken No mention of the three Freshmen the Blue Devils start or the fact that all four of Dukes Freshmen are projected to be NBA draft picks, three in the top 10.
Coach K consistently gets a pass for underachieving, he gets a pass for holding players back and convincing some to return to school. To the Wolken’s and Pat Forde’s of the world, that’s doing College basketball the right way. Once praised for his refusal to recruit the one-and-done player, Coach K’s can credit all of his recent success to embracing the Calipari system.
John Calipari on the other hand realized he’s more than just a basketball coach. Understanding his players and where a majority come from, he has bucked the system and encouraged an atmosphere where their future matters more than just winning games. As Calipari once stated, he is in the business of helping families, and helping families he has. As well as win more than Coach K, but shhh, that’s a secret.