NEW ORLEANS • Looking for those charming underdog stories? Go find the DVD from last year.
This year’s Final Four brings together an ensemble of big-name schools, all saddled with their typically big-time issues — a reminder that everything in college sports is not as pure as the NCAA and its “student-athletes” would like us to believe.
In the national semifinals Saturday, Kentucky plays Louisville and Ohio State meets Kansas. All the schools have made headlines for a variety of off-the-court reasons over the last several months, including the proliferation of one-and-done players, stories about coaches in courtrooms and a handful of financial misdeeds involving recruits, players, coaches and even ticket managers.
And so, while there are no little vs. big stories this year — the way tiny Butler or overlooked VCU beat the odds last season to make it to basketball’s pinnacle — we’re regaled with tall tales of redemption and resurrection: Teams and coaches that overcame their problems and got everyone thinking about basketball instead of the underside of a business driven by a $10.8 billion TV contract.
“There are a lot of good players out there who are performing right now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
For his part, Calipari is perfecting the art of luring a player for one, maybe two seasons, to contend for a championship, then saying a guilt-free goodbye. During his more candid moments, he’ll tell you he’s no fan of the rule that allows players to leave college after a single year. But it’s out of his hands. It’s the NBA that put in the rule stating players must be 19 before they can enter the draft.
What’s a coach to do?
“I think they trust that when the year is out, they’re going to get the right information and be treated fairly,” Calipari said. “They don’t worry about it. Historically, we don’t convince kids to stay who should leave. They are going to get the information, and they know that. They are just going to play basketball.”
It means freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both projected as high lottery picks, probably will be gone after this season, and it’s not impossible to think the rest of the starting lineup — all freshmen and sophomores — could leave, as well.
Calipari, who has had NCAA trouble at every step along his college head-coaching career, said this is a price worth paying for running a “players-first” program — with players who worry about winning first, then reap the benefits when the NBA comes calling.
While he applauds his team’s unselfishness, the NCAA insists it is toughening its academic standards and isn’t so concerned with the 15 players who do leave after one year, but rather the 5,500 who don’t.
“I’ve made no secret of the fact I’d prefer to have a different model,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said. “Most people want a different model. It would be nice if that were the case, but I don’t think we should blow one-and-done out of proportion and suggest this is undermining the educational mission of the NCAA.”
While the NCAA spins that issue, its rules police have spent plenty of time visiting Ohio State’s athletic department over the last several years. First, there was the firing of coach Jim O’Brien, who was found to have given money to a recruit, then later sued the school for wrongful termination because he got the ax before the NCAA had officially determined he’d done anything wrong.
Thad Matta cleaned up that mess and has led the Buckeyes to the Final Four twice in the last seven years. Though the basketball program has recovered nicely, the athletic department didn’t learn all its lessons: The football team is on probation because of violations that happened during Jim Tressel’s tenure.
The takeaway quote from that entire episode came from university president Gordon Gee, when asked if he was going to dismiss Tressel while the coach’s problems were still unfolding.
“No, are you kidding?” Gee said with a laugh. “Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
The last year has not been the greatest for college sports, with child sex abuse allegations at Penn State and Syracuse and a number of scandals uncovered at Miami, North Carolina, Southern California, Tennessee and elsewhere.
This week, of course, is supposed to be a celebration of what’s right with college sports. Yet it’s hard not to ignore some tidbits that came up on the road to the Final Four:
• Louisville spent the first two weeks of the tournament off campus, not wanting to fly back and forth to play games scheduled by the NCAA in Portland and Phoenix.
• Last year’s champion, Connecticut, isn’t eligible to play in the tournament next year because of NCAA academic sanctions, though the school is appealing.
• This year’s Final Four coaches are making between $2.5 million and $3.8 million this season and will cash in on six-figure bonuses if they win the national title.
The NCAA hasn’t been as big a player at Kansas, but that’s not to say the Jayhawks are immune to corruption.
Last May, five athletic department employees and consultants got between 37 and 57 months’ prison time for unlawfully selling football and basketball season tickets to ticket brokers and others, then pocketing the money.
Athletic director Lew Perkins saw his name sullied, and although he wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, he retired a year ahead of schedule in the wake of the scandal.
At Louisville, the NCAA didn’t get involved, but Pitino certainly landed in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
His name was trending for months while details of his extramarital affair and the ensuing extortion trial were aired out in public. Pitino’s reputation was damaged, and the woman who tried to bribe him to keep the thing secret got a seven-year prison sentence.
“A lot of times the last two years I took a lot of grief from a lot of people saying a lot of things,” Pitino said last week after Louisville beat Florida to make his sixth Final Four. “And I never thought in my life I could turn the other cheek and just walk on. And I did. And some of the most ugly things I’ve heard, I just took it inside. And today, as I look back on it, I’m real proud that you could turn the other cheek.”
This week, Pitino keeps looking forward, refusing to take the bait from all those Kentucky Wildcats fans, who may never forgive the 59-year-old coach for leaving them, heading to the NBA, then coming back a few years later to coach their archrival.
The Kentucky-Louisville story line is the best thing going this week in New Orleans, for what Calipari predicts will be an epic Final Four. Without any little teams cluttering up the court, this weekend will feature the most talent, Calipari says, since 2008, when he brought Memphis and Derrick Rose to the Final against Kansas and Mario Chalmers.
Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Davis (Kentucky) are first-team AP All-Americans. Those three teams all have other players who look very much like NBA material in the near future.
“2008 was ridiculous,” said Calipari, whose trip to the final later was vacated by the NCAA because of violations. “Guess what? This Final Four will be very similar to that.”