Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Before the NBA corrupted major-college basketball and kids competed in the classroom as well as on the court, it was far easier to predict the future.
Using the recent Final Four as a measuring stick, I could analyze the rosters and trumpet with reasonable certainty that Kentucky and Connecticut would be the most likely to return for the climax of 2012 March Madness.
If coach John Calipari’s players valued education as much as basketball, the Wildcats would welcome back Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb from the starting lineup that took UConn to the wire. Right now, all four underclassmen are considering the NBA Draft. Only Lamb seems likely to return to campus. If others stay, it might be because the NBA collective-bargaining agreement expires June 3 rather than love of learning.
Unfortunately, thanks to coaches like Calipari and Kelvin Sampson, mercenaries who have no interest in acquiring a degree continue to infiltrate our campuses, making a mockery of the term student-athlete. Give them bed and board, pamper them for a year or two at most, then bring in the next batch of NBA wannabes.
Hypocrisy be damned; Calipari doesn’t blink an eye. His next recruiting class, ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN, includes top-rated Anthony Davis, a Chicagoan who evolved from a guard into a 6-10 player with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. He also bagged Marquis Teague, a 6-2 point guard from Indianapolis Pike, 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer, who led the Jesuit Crusaders to three straight Class 6A state titles in Oregon, and 6-7 Michael Gilchrist.
That’s how it works at Kentucky, home of the crave and land of the fee. Why else would officials there hire someone who derailed programs at Massachusetts (1996) and Memphis (2008)? Both schools had Final Four appearances nullified under Calipari’s watch, but he continues to thrive. To label him an innocent who naively surrounds himself with questionable characters is ludicrous.
Violations continue to pop up under the man from Teflon. The latest involves assistant director of basketball operations Bilal Batley, who resigned after only four months at Kentucky. His resume also includes stints with Calipari at Memphis, and Sampson at Indiana. Batley has been accused of illegal calls to recruits and illegal participation during workouts at Kentucky.
If the NCAA really cared about cleaning house, shady characters would be banned from coaching, and recruits would be required to spend two years in college. Instead, Calipari earns more than $3.9 million a year and freshmen like John Wall quit going to class when basketball season ends. It’s an obscene figure, more than the combined salary of UConn’s Jim Calhoun, Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart.
Calhoun doesn’t hide his dislike for Calipari. They first butted heads when the latter served at Massachusetts. Calhoun suspended the series after two meetings in 1990, stating he would not schedule the Minutemen as long as Calipari coached there.
Of course, the venerable coach is hardly in a position to cast the first stone. He will start next season with a three-game suspension because of recruiting violations. The Huskies also have been slapped with probation and scholarship reductions.
Final four wrapup
Butler (28-10) — Despite the ugly finish and the loss of leading scorer Matt Howard, the Bulldogs should continue to prosper, especially if Shelvin Mack decides to forego the draft. The 6-3 junior’s NBA stock soared with a 20.3 point NCAA Tournament average. Thanks to him, Butler became the first No. 8 seed to reach the Final Four since 1985. It was an amazing turnaround for a team that lost to Horizon League tail-ender Youngstown State and twice to Milwaukee.
“A lot of folks wrote us off when we were 14-9,” said Josh Rattray, Butler’s assistant sports information director. “That’s what made our run so remarkable.”
Mack is on a fact-finding mission to assess his NBA chances.
“He’s going to the workouts and will talk to NBA people, not agents, to figure out where he stands,” said Rattray, a Crown Point native who grew up watching Valparaiso University basketball and was delighted when the Crusaders joined the Horizon League.
Experts might consider dropping Butler’s mid-major tag for the Midwest version of Gonzaga. Even eastern-oriented Sports Illustrated gets the message. The magazine listed Butler as eighth in its preseason top 10 basketball rankings for 2011-12.
Coach Stevens, whose contract already has been extended to 2023, will reload with 6-11 center Andrew Smith, defensive whiz Ron Nored, who led the Bulldogs in steals; Chase Stigall, who bagged 40 of his 52 field goals from beyond the arc, and supersub Khyle Marshall.
Recruits include Roosevelt Jones of Illinois and Jackson Aldridge, an Australian import who led his team to a gold medal in the Albert Schweitzer games. Aldridge, a point guard with a scorer’s mentality, chose Butler over Creighton, Wichita State and Marquette.
Butler’s supporting cast also can be relied on to step up next season.
“One thing we’re great at at Butler is player development,” Rattray said. “Guys here get coached up so they’re producing in their junior and senior seasons.”
VCU (28-12) — Are the Rams one-trick ponies? They must replace four starters, including 6-9 James Skeen, who was a regional MVP and scored 54 points in their last two tournament games. The Colonial League upstarts regroup with Bradford Burgess (14.3 points per game) and freshmen D.J. Haley and Juvonte Reddic, but will miss point guard Joey Rodriguez, who dazzled me with his pinpoint passing and decisions in the upset of Purdue. Smart recently signed an eight-year extension, but he’d have to be a miracle worker to copy Butler.
UConn (32-9) — Even if All-American Kemba Walker doesn’t return, the Huskies won’t be an easy out. Calhoun surrounded him with freshmen Jeremy Lamb (11.1 ppg), Shabazz Napier (7.3 ppg, 124 assists) and 33-game starter Roscoe Smith, plus sophomore rebounding leader Alex Oriaki. Calhoun’s third title was a major accomplishment, but the Huskies seem unlikely repeaters unless Walker stays. UConn’s scoring leader (23.5 ppg, 4.5 assists) is scheduled to graduate in May, but has another year of eligibility.