While the dust settles and rumors continue to swirl about which side is at fault in letting the rivalry die, the time to renew the annual Indiana and Kentucky has passed and college basketball has lost a potentially huge game in late November already. While both sides are claiming that it was the opposite side’s fault–Indiana head coach, Tom Crean, says that he never wanted to change the location, Kentucky Wildcats coach, John Calipari, offered conflicting reports–it was up to Kentucky to renew and instead, they passed on the opportunity. Indiana isn’t the first team that Kentucky has ended a series with this season–they also failed to renew against the North Carolina Tar Heels, opting instead for their biggest match up outside of the SEC to be either Louisville or an alternating Big East opponent. To let both series die in the same season is not only a shame for the sport of college basketball but a failure on Calipari’s part and a sign of weakness for the Kentucky basketball program as a whole.
While it’s a bold claim to denounce the Kentucky program as being weak for allowing both series to expire, it is not without substance. Let’s play Devil’s advocate briefly: if you’re part of the Kentucky program or a fan, you have to be feeling pretty good right now: you’ve just won the National Championship, you have the most all time, your coach brought in the 2nd best recruit class, and, in general, the future is bright. If you’re a Wildcat, you’re probably wondering why you even need Indiana or UNC: for God’s sake, you’re Kentucky, the Blue Blood of Blue Bloods!
With all of this being said, this is a foolish move on John Caliapari’s part and the program’s as a whole. Sure, Kentucky is going to be great, if not the best, for the next couple years. They have arguably the greatest recruiter in college basketball history in Calipari and he provides a straight path for young high school players from high school phenom to college star and potential champion to NBA draft pick. The allure of Calipari is that he is a magnet for the clear “one and dones,” the high school kids that are coming strictly to play college basketball because they have to. Unfortunately for Kentucky but luckily for the sport as a whole, one of two things is going to occur (if not both) in the coming future: either the NBA will either dictate to the NCAA that college players must stay for two or three years, or other coaches will pick up on Calipari’s strategy and end his near monopoly on star high school players. Simply put, Calipari’s game plan can’t sustain itself. If the NBA decides that it will require two or more years from college players, Calipari can’t bring in five of the top 50 players each class–there won’t be enough room. Players will have to spread out to different schools as opposed to accumulating at one. Not to mention, other coaches are starting to do the same thing Calipari is doing–look at Ben Howland, head coach of UCLA, who brought in the top recruit class, breaking Kentucky’s hold on the position for the first time in several years. Kentucky will be forced by either competing coaches or the NCAA to change its strategy.
While it’s all well and good to speculate on the impending doom of Kentucky’s program, what does it have to do with them not renewing on the Indiana or UNC series?
While it is sure to be debated, I would reason that Calipari didn’t renew against Indiana because they’re the favorites for next season and could probably beat Kentucky on a national stage. Obviously, UNC isn’t the favorite that Indiana is next year, but again, the general idea is the same–why play really good teams if it could hurt your recruiting if you lost? Again, Calipari is a short term guy–he lives for the present and the near future. Calipari isn’t doing Kentucky any favors by not renewing these series. Eventually, there will come a year where Kentucky isn’t as strong as they are now. Relying on recruits is like relying on cash crops for a national economy: one bad harvest will crush the system. If Calipari puts all his chips on some future #1 in the recruit class and loses a recruiting battle, their team could suffer. When such a year occurs, Kentucky will be looking for ways to get back into the national picture–possibly by trying to bring back series with UNC and Indiana, two Blue Bloods that know how to sustain themselves and invest in the long term future. However, considering neither of these program could be considered part of the John Calipari or Kentucky fan club, I doubt they’d agree to it.
So yes. Kentucky will be good next year, if not great again. Nerlens Noel is going to be a beast next year and it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Kentucky could repeat. However, looking at Kentucky’s future, it doesn’t look as bright as it should. Their biggest non conference opponent will be Louisville next year and outside of that game, they’re strictly playing big games against SEC opponents. That’s all well and good for right now, but soon, with the arrival of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC, they’ll be lacking a game with either of the top two conferences–the ACC and the Big 10. That’s not good for recruiting and it’s not the best way to prepare for the NCAA Tournament. So the message to Kentucky is: don’t let John Calipari steer the future of your program. Big games that could go either way are what make college basketball great. If you let Calipari convince you otherwise, don’t be surprised when he abandons ship somewhere along the line–he’s done so everywhere else he’s coached.
If I’m Indiana or North Carolina, I’d try contacting each other and starting a series between the two historic programs. The ACC/Big 10 challenge will be a great way to test the waters next year and see if there’s potential–it is highly suspected that they’ll likely face each other in the conference series come November.