Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kentucky 2012 - Michigan 1992 Realized?

I was reading this story on Grantland by Chuck Klosterman on him respecting but not rooting for Kentucky and it made realize something. The youngest and most dominant team in the nation could be the culmination of what the Fab Five started 20 years ago at Michigan.

I'll start by saying I'm not a big fan of John Calipari only because his style of coaching/arrogance has seen his teams fall brilliantly short. 2007-08 Memphis had the best starting 5 in the nation and lost a national title because they couldn't hit free throws or defend Mario Chalmers. 2009-2010 Kentucky had John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and all that talent and lost in the Elite Eight because of free throws and losing to a better coached squad.

Calipari's team play a freewheeling style where a brilliant point guard runs the show without a bunch of set plays. It's fun to watch but as I've seen covering the HS game, you need clear sets with clear vision down the stretch. Freewheeling teams despite talent don't always win. Well Cal is proving me wrong this year.

This Kentucky team with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and more is one of the best two-way teams in the country. Davis is the best defensive freshman I've seen in a while and his offensive game (while still raw) is improving every game. MKG is a sneaky good all-around player who'll be a lottery pick. But they are well balanced (6 guys averaging double figures) and they play airtight defense in addition to scoring with ease.

And they're doing this while starting 3 freshmen and 2 sophomores. 20 years removed from the Fab Five, the college game has become more and more dominated by younger players making an impact faster.

The Fab Five turned college basketball upside down when Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson all started together in February 1992. They were brash freshmen who upset traditionalists because of their attitude but they also played a sound, team game. People don't say this enough but the Fab 5 - for all their arrogance, trash-talk, attitude - played fundamentally, exciting basketball.

(Proof? Chris Webber became one of the best passing big men in recent memory, Jalen Rose had an solid NBA career and played in the NBA Finals, Juwan Howard is still balling for Miami. Remind me how many guys from 1992 Duke and 1993 UNC had successful NBA careers besides Grant Hill?)

While Georgetown had a bigger social impact and UNLV played the same style while winning a title, the Fab Five not just inspired Black fans and young fans, they showed the future of basketball. Before them, few freshmen made an impact. Before 1991, Wayman Tisdale and Chris Jackson were the only Freshmen 1st Team All-Americans. Pervis Ellison was the Final Four MVP helping Louisville win the 1986 National Title. Kenny Anderson in 1990 was a freshman leading Georgia Tech leading to the Final 4 as a 3rd team AA selection

The Fab 5 showed that freshmen and sophomores wouldn't just be content to wait their turn if they were ready right now. And thanks to the NBA forcing kids to stay in college at least one year, that system went into overdrive.

Flash forward to 2007 - Kevin Durant and Greg Oden as freshmen became First Team All-Americans and Durant became National Player of the Year. That same year in high school, seniors Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo and Kyle Singler were expected to shine right away the next year. And they did.

Beasley and Love became 1st Team AA's. Gordon and Rose made the 3rd team. Love got to the Final Four to lose to Rose and Memphis. All but Singler left after that 2007-08 season and became lottery picks. The game change was in full effect. Now college became a 1-and-done paradise or a glorified minor leagues where top freshmen would automatically be among the top 20-25 players in bball.

It hasn't manifested itself into a national championship yet - again, good coaching, more seasonally developed players typically win out - but if anybody does it, wouldn't surprise me if it's John Calipari, who has jumped on this trend faster  and with greater success/blowback than anyone expected. He's changed players so quick that I can't name too many juniors and seniors he's coached in the last 5 years besides Chris Douglas-Roberts or the rest of the Memphis starters. But instead of most coaches hating it, he's honest about the game and a willing supporter of it (while also making sure his kids are fully aware of the game and don't walk into blindly).

In a sense, Calipari is like Jerry Tarkanian, the controversial yet beloved shepherd of the UNLV dynasty in the 80's and early 90's. I don't necessarily agree with his logic but I can't hate the game. Three Final Fours in five years, last year's kids being hailed for their IQ (esp. Brandon Knight's GPA) and this year's kids being praised for their unselfishness as well as their dominance.

Ironically, Cal's controversy (1996 UMass and 2008 Memphis technically don't exist) is similar to how the Fab Five era technically doesn't exist due to NCAA violations. But one lesson from the Fab Five was that eventually folks would legally find ways to recruit the best freshmen and find the same success without the NCAA coming down with the hammer.

Does it ultimately hurt the college game? It waters down the overall product among other factors. But where I disagree with Klosterman is that it turns recruiting into a privileged game. Kids play for schools with 1) big names, 2) family ties, 3) excellent coaches, 4) proven track records of success, 5) friendships and more. Winning always attracts players and I don't see anybody complaining about it in college football - albeit there's more players but it's also become a game of the rich getting richer.

Last year, Kentucky made the Final Four with a far-less talented roster than the John Wall club but no scandal. Now they are reloaded with a mix of last year's and this year's freshmen and even better than ever.You might hate Kentucky but if they win the NCAA title, they'll be the final step in the rebelution (yes, I said rebelution) the Fab Five started 20 years ago. 19 and 20-year old kids dominating the college game and changing conventional wisdom.

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