Calipari Pushes ‘Nontraditional’ Scheduling Agenda, A Loss For Everyone InvolvedPosted by EJacoby on May 8th, 2012
By now, you’ve heard that two of college basketball’s traditional powerhouses have decided to end their annual tradition of playing each other. Kentucky and Indiana have combined for 13 national championships, are two of the strongest and historic programs in basketball history, and could easily both be ranked in the top five to begin next season. Last year they played in two classic games that included some of the best moments of the entire season. Yet, at the height of the rivalry in many years, the schools could not come to an agreement on how to continue their games. While fans on both sides continue to voice their displeasure (synopsis: IU says “convenient”; UK says “trust in Cal”) , the Kentucky coach has now explained his side of the story. Feeling emboldened by his newly-minted national championship, John Calipari wrote an extended blog post over the weekend about his scheduling needs and why they contradict with the purpose of the UK-IU rivalry. While Calipari should be praised for his direct communication with fans and refreshing transparency, his actual argument doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He states that his primary focus is to best prepare his team for the NCAA Tournament, but in his new “nontraditional” approach he’s stripping his players of valuable competition and fans of exciting matchups to look forward to. Calipari stresses that UK is a players-first program, but the agenda that he’s pushing doesn’t actually seem more beneficial for the players, and it’s not good for college basketball fans, either.
Calipari’s post reinforces the idea that his scheduling desires are motivated by what’s best for his team during each individual season. He says that Kentucky is “going through things that no other program in the history of college basketball has gone through. No other program is losing five or six players a year.” While this is technically true, it’s not logical to give up long-term scheduling deals with other schools just because his team will look different every year. The fact that his team does in fact look different each season (presumably filled with blue-chippers as long as he’s around) would instead lead us to believe that he needs to challenge his teams right away in order to prepare the Wildcats for the rigors of March. Kentucky may still have won the title last season if it hadn’t played a challenging non-conference schedule, but early games against Kansas (neutral), Louisville (home), North Carolina (home), and Indiana (road) seemed to help speed up the learning curve of his precocious freshmen.
No head coach, including Calipari, wants to lose non-conference games. Losing those games can severely impact the RPI, which – as flawed of a measure as we all know it to be – is still the underlying metric that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses to compare and contrast teams. For years fans around the country (with UK fans especially vocal) have decried the “Coach K Method” of scheduling, questioning why Duke rarely challenges itself in the non-conference season to play true road games in an opponent’s building. There’s truth to the criticism – outside of the ACC/Big Ten mandate, Duke might play one other “road” game each season, usually confined to the Duke-friendly alumni corridor of the Mid-Atlantic from DC (Georgetown) through Philadelphia (Temple) to New York (St. John’s). These look like hostile road trips on paper, but plenty of Duke fans who live nearby scoop up tickets to support the Blue Devils, making those games more neutral than you might think. Duke then fills the rest of its non-conference schedule with other neutral site games against teams it should beat and home games against solid mid-majors like Belmont and Davidson, earning wins and good RPI juice in the process.
Calipari’s strongest point in the 1,500-word piece touches on the point of preparing his players for the NCAAs using this formula. The Dance is played on “neutral” floors in the sense that they’re not home floors (although UK fans fill the place anyway), and therefore it makes sense that Kentucky or any other elite contender would want to get some reps in those kinds of environments. But Kentucky under Calipari is already doing that. The Wildcats played three neutral games in the non-conference slate last season (plus one in Louisville), mimicking the same formula of neutral site games they played in Calipari’s first two seasons in Lexington (three + a Louisville game). Throw in the SEC Tournament, and that means that UK plays an average of seven ‘neutral’ site games before the NCAA Tournament even starts. At what point does the addition of one or two more neutral-site games produce a marginal return (answer: it doesn’t)? And as far as improving outcomes, we’re still struggling to understand how much better the Wildcats can get, but more on this below.
Calipari claims he’s not “backing away from challenges” by referring to his days at UMass and Memphis when his teams were known for playing “anybody, anywhere.” But that’s just stating the obvious — the Minutemen and Tigers were in weaker conferences and Calipari’s only shot to secure a high NCAA seed was to build up schedule strength prior to the conference season. The SEC, while it will never be confused with the ACC or Big Ten in how seriously it takes basketball, is still usually good enough to provide UK with a protected seed if they lose only a handful of conference games. Calipari likes to remind everyone that coaching at Kentucky is different, and although he’s right about that, he’s using the power of the position here in a completely self-interested way. UK as one of the pre-eminent programs in America has no dearth of possible opponents who will play the Wildcats wherever they want, yet now that he’s in position to be more selective, Calipari doesn’t feel the need to schedule additional tough road matchups. The young upstart who built a career on brashness and a head of steam moving forward is now looking to take the more comfortable route.
Perhaps most astonishingly (and no doubt precipitated by the RTC in Bloomington, incidentally one of the iconic moments of the 2011-12 regular season), the coach also claims as a players-first program that he must protect his players, and that UK’s recent scheduling of annual home-and-home games with North Carolina, Indiana, and Louisville are somehow dangerous. “It’s either we do that or we over-schedule and put our players at risk,” he writes. What are his players at risk of, exactly? They certainly are not at any additional risk of injury (any game can cause that) nor underexposure (in fact, the marquee games allow players better opportunities for evaluation – think Anthony Davis’ game-saving block against John Henson). So call us cynical here, but the only possible risk that we can quite see here is the risk of losing. Again, thinking about the Coach K Method – there’ s nothing inherently wrong with maximizing your RPI to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament – but we don’t appreciate being told that there’s some kind of commensurate player risk in playing road games when that simply is not the case. Just tell us you want to get a high seed and be done with it.
Finally, Calipari wants his fans to believe that he and only he is qualified to speak on this matter. “For all the Big Blue Nation, please do not listen to someone who has never coached or listen to media who are agenda driven for another program.” If we didn’t know any better, we’d suggest that the UK coach was running for a nationally-elected office in six months. This is classic politburo speech, true red meat for the evangelicals – listen to me and me alone; all others are agenda driven and do not have your best interests at heart; place your $20 in the hat and pass it along.
In response to Calipari, we’ll say this. Our agenda is college basketball. Kentucky is a big part of it, but it’s not the only part. By doing what is in your perceived best interest and removing the Wildcats from any number of potential home-and-home rivalries in the future, you’re acting no differently than the many other misguided souls who are responsible for turning college basketball into an economic afterthought that has already resulted in the loss of classic rivalries such as Syracuse-Georgetown and Missouri-Kansas. In the dogged pursuit of more players, more wins, more Final Fours, and more championships, we understand that you have to put yourself in a position to succeed – but in three years in Lexington, you’ve won 102 games, been to two Final Fours, and won a national championship. You’ve brought in three top-ranked recruiting classes and are in the conversation for a fourth. You’ve lathered up the most fervent fan base in the sport to stratospheric support with few American equals. And yet, you think that avoiding true non-conference road games in the future will improve these results? No, you don’t think that. So rather than putting everyone through this display of coachspeak gone wrong to justify the shift in strategy, we’d have preferred if you just told us the truth: It’s easier this way. And you know what? There would have been nothing wrong with that.