"I hope they continue to believe that our way doesn't work. It buys us a few more years." - Paul DePodesta, Moneyball
When I sent John Gasaway Chuck Klosterman's column worrying that a Kentucky win Monday might destroy college basketball as we know it, our general reactions were similar. However, there was one specific aspect of Klosterman's argument Gasaway didn't buy with which I agreed completely: the notion that John Calipari needed a championship to validate his success.
For a college coach, the "COUNT THE RINGZ!!!" argument is even dumber than in the NBA because of the random nature of the single-elimination NCAA tournament. As Gasaway jokingly pointed out, nobody seriously argued before last night that Calipari is a worse coach than Gary Williams (his choice) or Jim Harrick (mine). Still, the notion persists, and it's affected better coaches than Calipari. Remember when Dean Smith couldn't win the big one? That argument hasn't held much weight since 1982. Same with Roy Williams since 2005. Even Coach K took some flack for striking out in the Final Four before winning his first of four championships in 1991, a development detailed in The Last Great Game but otherwise forgotten over the last two decades.
Until Calipari won, critics of Kentucky's accumulation of one-and-done players would always be able to retort, "Yeah, but can it win a championship?" This is a terrific argument, of course, because it almost always proves true. Guess at the start of the season that any random top-25 team won't win the title and you've got at least a 96 percent chance of being correct. Still, any time someone tries something new or different, human instinct is to declare it won't work. This is probably for the best, since skepticism keeps us from being fooled by false results like cold fusion or Florida State's ACC Tournament run, but it's easy to hold on to that position long after the results have validated a strategy.
As Gasaway noted, Calipari had already accomplished plenty before Monday night in three years in Lexington: trips to the Elite Eight each year, two Final Fours and a championship game. Just by getting that far, Calipari defied the odds, since even models that made the Wildcats the favorites gave them no better than about one in three chances of reaching the title game. What winning a championship does is remove the last possible argument employed by Calipari's doubters. There is nothing basketball-related left for them to use at this point.
Here's what I question about Klosterman's position: The notion that any other coach in the land could duplicate Calipari's success with such young, talented teams. I've argued this in pithier form before, but I believe that everything else that makes Calipari Calipari distracts from the man's ability to coach. Strip away the hairspray, strip away the recruiting, strip away the vacated wins and what is left is an excellent basketball coach.
There are, as Gasaway has laid out, a handful of teams that recruit nationally and are in position to compete with Kentucky for the 10 or so prospects so talented as to likely be one-and-done at the NBA level. Naturally, these teams--the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Kansases--do land some of these players, but none has relied so heavily on freshman. I suspect that's because their coaches rightfully worry about the effect it would have on their ability to put together a team over 40 games and five months.
In general, the more experience the better for college teams. This relationship is complicated by the fact that more talented players play earlier, which means that the league's very best teams are often less experienced than average. That and a whole host of other factors mean the correlation between experience and performance (as measured by Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean rating) is far closer to nonexistent than perfect (with an r of just 0.12). Still, Kentucky stands out as an outlier when we graph the two metrics. That's them at the top left:
This season, just five teams were less experienced than the Wildcats when weighted for playing time: Boston College, Niagara, Nicholls State, Rutgers and St. John's. None of those teams finished better than .500, and the Eagles were one of the worst major-conference teams in the country.
Obviously, other teams aren't plugging in blue chippers like Big Blue, but it's hard to find many examples of teams so young playing so well. Of the 23 teams that averaged less than a year of weighted experience, just three (Connecticut, Texas and Western Kentucky) reached the NCAA tournament. None played past the first weekend.
The best comparison to what Calipari is doing might be the empty-cupboard situations teams that recruit nationally sometimes experience in the wake of mass defections to the NBA, like North Carolina in 2006-07 and Kansas in 2008-09. We've seen teams succeed in these situations--those Tar Heels earned a one seed--but never emerge as the nation's very best team like Kentucky.
Still, if you think of Calipari as merely a coach who can mold some of the nation's top young talent into an elite unit, you do him a bit of a disservice. What is most impressive about Calipari is the number of different ways he has built winning teams. At Memphis, Calipari never got one-and-done recruits until Derrick Rose arrived in 2007-08, followed by Tyreke Evans the next year. His 2005-06 team, which earned a No. 1 seed and lost on the doorstep of the Final Four, featured plenty of NBA-bound talent--first-round picks Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams, second-round picks Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey and undrafted Antonio Anderson--but not the kind of singular standout Calipari has recruited regularly in recent years.
The results from Calipari's offenses have fluctuated with his talent. I think his greatest strength at that end of the floor may be his flexibility. He's gone away from the Dribble Drive Motion, in favor of more traditional attacks the last two seasons when his teams have been less dependent on a superstar point guard. Kentucky has also successfully slowed the pace midseason each of the last two years, helping freshmen point guards Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague thrive.
At the defensive end, Calipari's teams have been more consistently elite. Over the last seven seasons, his defenses have never ranked worse than 15th in the country on a per-possession basis when adjusted for opposition. Monday night's performance pushed this year's Wildcats into the top 10, the fifth time a Calipari team has taken up residence there over those seven years. The only coach in the country who can match or exceed that track record is Bill Self, who's seven for his last seven. While Self is rightfully lauded for his skill as a game coach, the notion still persists that Calipari recruits talent, then relies on those players to win games. He does that, of course, but no more or less than anyone else in the country.
Given the unique challenges that come with coaching the kind of players--and kind of egos--Calipari brings to Kentucky, there's an added degree of difficulty to what he's doing. Most any coach in the country would trade places with Calipari, certainly, in order to have access to such talent. But I'm not sure that anyone else could manage it as successfully as he does.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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