John Calipari's success is, in and of itself, easy to describe. Calipari has ushered fifteen players into the draft in just three summers, with a couple more on the way this week. He's had five players drafted in the top five overall, including two No. 1 picks. His classes have arrived at UK ranked No. 1 in four out of the past five seasons (the only exception being 2012, when UK ranked No. 2), with the latest already being hailed as the best recruiting class ever. And, of course, there was the 2011-12 national title, when an immensely talented and unusually cohesive group made the sport its five-month plaything.
Describing why Calipari has been so successful is much more difficult. Last week, my colleague Myron Medcalf and I spent most the better part of a morning attempting to do just that. I'm biased, but I think we did an OK job -- from the self-sustaining cycle of draft results that practically recruits players without any need for human salesmanship, to Calipari's rejection of the old-school attitude that college basketball exists solely to make men out of boys. To Calipari, college basketball exists to pull families out of generational poverty. There is no song-and-dance about the value of a four-year degree. That's the level Kentucky's playing on, and it works. Obviously so.
But even having noted these things, we may still have undersold the point. Today, ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil follows up with her feature story on the new rules of recruiting, which must account for players' -- and their families' -- NBA dreams in a way coaches never quite had to before. The entire story is excellent (obviously), and you should absolutely read all of it. But possibly the most interesting point is slammed home rather early, and Arizona coach Sean Miller has the hammer in hand. To wit:
"In general terms, you have to be careful at times when you're talking about getting a degree," Arizona's Sean Miller said. "It could be taken as an insult
I'm not good enough or my player or my son isn't good enough to leave early. Is that every situation? Of course not. But you have to be careful."
Did Sean Miller just blow your mind? Because he blew mine. Of course the NBA looms large over any recruiting interaction between high-profile college coaches and high-profile high school stars. To some extent that has always been the case. As Dana notes, that attitude has only accelerated in Calipari's wake. But we've actually gotten to the point now where a college coach has to be careful not to promise a recruit's family a college degree because it might be perceived as a diss. "You want my son to stay in college long enough to get a degree? How dare you!"
This is an indictment of many things, most of which Dana notes. There is the very millennial desire to have everything now now now (of which we are all at least somewhat guilty). There's the insular and often narcissistic social media climate, in which everyone is the star of their own story. There's the overheated grassroots hoops culture, in which everyone is a star, which dovetails nicely with the everyone-gets-a-ribbon ethos Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers are always affixing en masse to my purportedly "coddled" generation. There's the one and done rule, which makes sense for the NBA and no one else. And there's the shortsighted desire to get paper now and a degree later, which is impossible to deride when it is a family's best chance of breaking through a decades-old cycle of poverty. (Or, for that matter, middle-class-ness -- $10 million is $10 million to anyone who doesn't have considerably more than $10 million.)
But it is also, to some small degree, an indictment of the NCAA. While justifying its own tax-exempt existence as one of academic necessity, and touting how many student-athletes go pro in something other than sports, the NCAA generates its revenue because elite prospects like the ones Miller talks to are immensely entertaining to watch play single-elimination games in March. We worry about if schools are living up to their academic obligations to players, but what happens when the players, and their families, aren't remotely interested in academics either? When coaches have to lightly tread around the notion that a degree is one of the benefits of playing college basketball, hasn't the artifice crumbled entirely?
Thirty years ago, a degree was an ironclad part of that promise. Now, depending on the player and his family, a degree is a touchy subject. At worst, apparently, it's an insult -- a derogative notion that must be massaged, if not avoided altogether.
The cognitive dissonance here overwhelming. It's 2013, and if it wasn't official before, it is now: College basketball has officially entered its bizarro period. This can't possibly be sustained.