Why Kentucky’s Shunning Of International Basketball is Very Good, and Very Scary, News.Posted by Chris Johnson on May 24th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
An obvious implication of the NCAA’s move two years ago to open up individual workouts to players enrolled in summer classes was an improved brand of non-conference performance. Teams would be better suited to kick off their schedules with gusto. Much of the sloppy rust that typically defines November and December would be cleaned up, replaced by a crisper and more cohesive style of play. There was little regard for what other rippling effects this new rule might have. Coaches seemed to love the idea, anyway, and for all the obvious reasons. A slightly disconcerting side effect of the NCAA cutting the tape on summer team workouts rose to the surface with Thursday’s release of USA Basketball’s list of accepted tryout invitations for the Under-19 Czech Republic-located FIBA World Championships. The list is not short on talent or, slippery as it is to define in today’s diffuse one-and-done landscape, star power – Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon are among the accepted invites. But it’s missing an important and highly touted subset of players: the top players from the class of 2013.
With the exception of Gordon, the second-ranked power forward and fourth-ranked player overall, according to ESPN Recruiting nation, the list features none of the breathtaking talents that have national recruiting analysts in unanimous agreement over this class’s distinguished eminence. 2013’s top tier of talents is a rare collection of athletic wonder and refined skill and future lottery potential, and almost none of it will go into putting the best outfit possible on Eastern European courts this summer to represent the stars and stripes. Scan the list yourself, then peek back at any 2013 class rankings, and the absence of essentially every consensus top-20 player is hard to ignore. The Jabari Parkers and Julius Randles and Noah Vonlehs are all passing up the opportunity. Many of these players are scattered about the nation’s traditional blue-blood programs, but Kentucky – as part of building the best recruiting class of all time, Andrew Wiggins’ exclusion duly noted – owns six top-100 commitments in 2013, and none of them decided to join up with Team USA at this summer’s event. John Calipari spoke with The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy about his players’ collective rebuttal of national team participation, and when you dig beneath the image of Calipari’s nebulously slick media guile and accept his words at face value, their decision is perfectly respectable (and not at all unpatriotic – just in case you were ready to summon one of those tortured “what about the old days?! These kids have no sense of what it means to wear the stars and stripes!!” blusterings). It makes the most complete sense.
“Most of it is, they didn’t want to play. I’m not forcing kids to do anything,” Calipari told Sporting News. “I think the reason they all turned it down is, they want to get started.”
Representing Team USA and stamping the 2013 class’s nationally-feted reputation with a dominant court-dusting romp sounds like something any recruit – big, small, four-star, five-star, whatever – would be inclined to participate in. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe national pride in sporting events is an deteriorating moral concept, or maybe the only international basketball that matters to a young top-20 prospect is the senior national team, and any and every age group below senior pool play feels like a royal waste of time. Calipari’s idea is more convincing. UK’s freshmen world-beaters were free to join their U-19 counterparts; they decided against it, and for entirely prudent reasons. Partaking in the summer event would mean every bit of early practice and team gelling the NCAA opened up with its newly-passed legislation two years ago would be wiped away. Kentucky enters this season with massive expectations, massive talent and, yes, a restless fan base none too happy over last season’s massive flub job that ended with a first-round NIT loss in Moon, Pennsylvania.
Critics of Kentucky’s almost guaranteed preseason top-three ranking will grow louder and louder every week leading up to the 2013-14 season. They will cite last season’s freshmen inexperience, and how the failure to fortify raw freshmen talent with capable veterans turned one of the most purely gifted groups in the country to an emotionally unstable and easily perturbed and NCAA Tournament-starved outfit. Calipari doesn’t want that happening twice in a row on his watch, and his players, Willie Caulie-Stein and Julius Randle notably listed in DeCourcy’s article, would rather not see their probable one season (in Cauley-Stein’s case, his second) of college basketball get off to a slow start, or not live up to the sum of its unprecedented parts, just because the Wildcats didn’t get together to take advantage of every moment of summer practice time available.
The college basketball season has been pushed back into the summer months, not officially – Midnight Madness is here to stay – but enough to make a glamorous whipping of international competition feel less important than the extra preparatory time allotted by the NCAA’s new rules. Players and coaches understand the newfound importance of non-conference performance, and how utterly destabilizing a sluggish out-of-league start can be to a team’s season. They’re not ready to give that up for a mid-summer hoops-filled vacation, which is the breathtakingly indomitable portrait I get when I think about consolidating the 2013 class, lopping Marcus Smart and Rasheed Sulaimon on top for some “veteran” stability, and unleashing that group on an international youth basketball tournament. It won’t happen, which is sort of sad and unfulfilling, but if this team-determined mindset is the attitude we should come to expect from this season’s group of Kentucky freshmen – if the unified approach is more like the MKG-led outfit of 2012, and less like last season’s storied flameout – I’m afraid the critics, the people doubting UK’s ability to jumble its 2013 supergroup into a well-oiled selfless machine, will have to start looking somewhere else.