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Column: College team? Not. Calipari's NBA development academy flourishing at Kentucky
It's time to bury the term "student-athlete." It died at 11:42 p.m. Monday, just about the time the confetti falling from the roof of the Superdome landed on coach John Calipari's hair and the players from Kentucky's NBA development academy gathered at a far corner of the court to collect a trophy many of them will need a campus map to find next year.
The real joke is on college basketball, or at least the college part of it. The Kansas team the Wildcats beat handily, 69-61, never had more than a puncher's chance.
"They did a great job," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said afterward. "They're playing with pros. That didn't hurt."
And not just any pros.
Kentucky had the sure-fire No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft in freshman Anthony Davis, who was honored as the game's most outstanding player after grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking six shots, and a top-three selection in another freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Sophomore Terrence Jones is a likely mid first-round pick and three more Wildcats ' freshman Marquis Teague, sophomore Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, one of only two seniors ' could be playing in the pros by the time the leaves hit the ground in Lexington next fall.
Say this much for Calipari: He never hides his ambition. He doesn't have to. What amounted to a graduation ceremony for his latest class of "one-and-dones" took place in full view of NCAA president Mark Emmert, whose seat at center court was one of the best in the house. Emmert, sadly, has seen it before and is as powerless to stop it now as he was in 2005, when a new NBA collective bargaining agreement, designed to stop kids from turning pro straight out of high school, inadvertently made a mockery of the college game.
In the last four years, Calipari-coached teams have appeared in two championship games, the first one at Memphis in 2008. Over that same span, he's had nine NBA first-round selections, including two of the last four players to go as No. 1s, and Davis will give him the trifecta. But he's not only ruthless as a recruiter.
The Wildcats were already up 18 with little more than three minutes left in the first half, but that wasn't enough for Calipari. Noticing that Davis wasn't in the game, he walked to the far end of the bench, where a trainer was trying to help the freshman put his contact lenses back in. Calipari began clapping his hands and yelling, "Let's go! Let's go!"
Seconds later, dissatisfied with the pace of the repairs, he stormed back in their direction and screamed, "Are you (kidding) me?" ' only he used language we can't reprint here.
After trailing 41-27 at halftime, Self was the last guy out of the Kansas locker room, still studying the stat sheet as he started down the hallway that led back to the court. A Jayhawk fan leaned over the railing for a high-five, and almost reflexively, Self extended his left hand with the sheet still in it. He might as well have left it with the fan, since he wasn't going to find anything on it he didn't already know.
Davis was the principal reason the Jayhawks threw up desperate rainbow shots nearly every time they ventured into the lane, and that only got worse as time slipped away. That explains their 36 percent shooting for the game, but not the beating they absorbed on the other end.
After shooting 7-for-8 in a semifinal drubbing of Louisville two days ago, Davis went 1-for-10 against Kansas, but that was hardly a reflection of his contributions to the Wildcats offense. He started his sophomore year of high school at 6-foot-2, then grew to 6-10 by the time he was a senior. Watching him glide up the court handling the basketball like a point guard threw the Jayhawks defense into panic mode more than once.
"I think it's a joke, simply because they have four players who can bring the ball up the court," Kansas' Elijah Johnson said. "To have someone who can get the rebound and put it on the floor and go, that puts you on your heels more. We haven't seen that much this year."
Neither has anyone else.
Larry Brown, who mentored Self and Calipari when he was at Kansas and has plenty of experience on pro benches, said the other day he thinks this Kentucky team could beat almost half the teams in the NBA. That's an exaggeration, but only slightly. Davis is reed-thin and couldn't survive the pounding he'd take playing against men whose livelihood depends on not getting pushed around. Kidd-Gilchrist turned 18 just last September and he's not ready to play against real pros, either.
But that's not going to stop them from dropping by the used-bookstore back on campus to hand over the ones they've been carrying around like props the last nine months, then booking an agent to get them a king's ransom when some NBA team comes calling. Calipari may be sad to see them go, but he won't waste much time, either, recruiting their replacements. It won't be hard.
"I said this a couple years ago and everybody got crazy when we had five guys drafted in the first round. This is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history," Calipari said.
"The reason was, I knew now that other kids would look and say, 'You got to go there.' What I'm hoping is there's six first-rounders on this team. We were the first program to have five, let's have six. That's why I've got to go recruiting on Friday."
And just think, you don't even need a college degree to do that kind of math.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.