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Calipari, SEC Hoops, and the Coming NBA "Bubble"

Watch out - Rick Pitino and Louisville!  

John Calipari gave Kentucky what it wanted - a coach that makes them instantly competitive in their state, their conference, and the nation at large.  There is little doubt that it has been hard for Kentucky to watch their beloved hoops program slide into irrelevance.  Having a coach like John Calipari will guarantee that there will be no more irrelevance in Lexington.

That's the good news, but there's another side to examine.

Since it all came down last week, Kentucky's hiring of Calipari has been favorably compared to Alabama hiring Nick Saban a couple of years ago.  Like the hiring of Saban, Calipari's ascendence in Lexington might set off a ripple effect across the SEC hoops landscape and throughout the Footprint.

In football the effect was clearer, and to a large part, beneficial for SEC football.  We have written about how the SEC has embraced this new nature of college football and has essentially upgraded to a new, revved-up version of "College Football 2.0."

On its face, Calipari is a home run hire.  Getting Kentucky basketball "fixed" (ie back into the national scene) is a critical move for getting the SEC back into the national college hoops picture.

However, we at Swampland Sports have some concerns about this hire.  It's not over Calipari and innuendo around him and his recruiting.  It's all about what Calipari's hire says about the state of college hoops.  

The bigger picture is what the NBA has done to basketball.  We've all seen economic bubbles in the last decade from the tech bubble to the housing bubble to the credit bubble.  We might soon be looking at the basketball bubble.

The NBA has one of the most capable, intelligent, and glib commissioners in all of sports, David Stern.  Stern likes to control the image of his league.  However, the NBA's rapid expansion, both in the US and internationally, may end up eating away at its own foundation.

The first casualty of the NBA's unintentionally wrongheaded business philosophy has been college basketball.  Few like to talk about it during tournament time, but college basketball has become largely irrelevant until March.  That's because the NBA spent a decade drafting the bet kids right out of high school.  When the league finally instituted and age limit rule, it created the even worse "one and done" effect which had players coming to college for one year and then leaving for NBA riches.

Calipari's real value to Kentucky is that he perfected a proven system to win in this new environment in Memphis.  Last season, Calipari recruited the "one and done" Derrick Rose as his PG.  Rose led the team to the NCAA Finals and then went on to be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft.  This past year, Calipari replaced Rose with Tyreke Evans who will also be another "one and done" player who led them to another undefeated season in C-USA and a Sweet 16 tourney run.

This Washington Post piece gives a nice spin on "Team Tyreke", but any thinking person can see the problems with this kind of arrangement.  We will spare anyone the morality of whether or not kids like Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose should use colleges as a speed bump on the way to the pros.  That's the system.  The bigger issue is that these players and the NBA are being hurt long term by making these fast jumps.

Why?  Don't take our word for it.  Listen to David Falk, the man who helped to inventthe marketing of the modern athlete as Michael Jordan's agent.  Falk has written a new book called the Bald Truth which lays out clearly and succinctly that the NBA's economic system is broken and that it must insist on a higher age limit for two reasons:  (a) young players diminish the quality of play at the NBA level and (b) college basketball is the best marketing tool that the NBA and their players have.

Which David do you believe about the NBA's future?

Falk also predicts that the next NBA labor agreement will be bloody and that Stern and his owners will succeed in getting this higher age limit as well as several other key economic concessions.  (David Stern, of course, denies Falk's assertions about the league being in a "doomsday" financial position.)

The simple point is that "Team Tyreke" should and will be replaced by his college team and his NBA team after a few years.  No longer will the college basketball world be controlled by shadowy figures like Worldwide Wes.

This is where the Calipari becomes dangerous for the SEC and the rest of college hoops.  First, you can't really duplicate what he does since his recruiting is a network of relationships designed to get "one and done" players onto his team, into the NCAA Sweet 16 or beyond, and then onto the NBA.  Second, it may not be a winning perscription in the long term.

If the NBA shifts this paradigm as Falk predicts, Calipari's current appeal won't be worth anywhere near what Kentucky is paying him.  Suddenly, coaches that can actually help players develop over a three year period, not just one year, will be the better bet for both the colleges that employ them and the players who wish to play in the NBA.

This is where the comparison between Nick Saban and John Calipari falls short.  Saban already has his kids for at least three years.  He can recruit talent because he has won in college and the NFL as a coach.  He can credibly make the case to his potential recruits that their time at Alabama will help them fulfill their pro dreams.  He can instill a work ethic in them.  He can make Alabama fans happy and proud as their team wins.  

Most of all, he is in control of his kids - not the other way around.

Calipari might be "Coaching 2.0" for college basketball, but we expect the NBA to bring about a recall of this version much like Microsoft will do with Vista.  In the end, Calipari has yet to prove that he is a long term program builder like Saban.  

To be accurate, his college football equivalency would span the spectrum from Lou Holtz at Notre Dame (a compromised winner who leaves you worse than he found you) to Hal Mumme (a head coach who quickly turns around teams with trick offenses and JUCO transfers but takes you into probation).  Kentucky people know about Mumme.  We think they prefer the slow building of Rich Brooks.  

Clearly, they want a star roaming their sidelines.  College basketball rewards the Calipari approach today, but when the game changes, will Kentucky be happy with what they have?

Let's hope that Coach Cal can really find a home in bluegrass country - one that lasts and is fruitful for the school, the fans, and the coach.  He hasn't shown this side of himself yet, but he has never had a chance like Kentucky.

In the end, what's good for Kentucky basketball is good for SEC hoops, but Cal's hire won't immediately make the SEC college basketball's great new conference despite what SI says.  Until the system is fixed, from the NBA down, all schools should step cautiously when hiring big dollar coaches.

Kentucky felt that they had to do it and are happy about it.  We have to respect that.  In the end, it will be good to see the SEC having at least one program that might be able to challenge the juggernaut that Roy Williams is perfecting in Chapel Hill.

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