NCAA men’s final four: Can Kentucky cut down the nets?
Around this time every year, we ask ourselves what we want from our champions. Dominance, vulnerability, freakish talent, scrappiness, quiet confidence, loud bravado, out-of-nowhere Cinderella surprise? We’ve seen all of the above in the NCAA Basketball tournament over the years, and depending on the personalities and institutions involved, we have rooted for and against those championship characteristics.
It is rare, though, when we have a team and a moment in time that forces us to reveal our rooting interests in a purely polarizing way. The 2015 University of Kentucky Wildcats is that team and that moment in time. Having survived a gallant effort from Notre Dame on Saturday night, ultimately emerging with an improbable 68-66 victory, Kentucky remains undefeated and has advanced to the Final Four, the first program to accomplish that feat since UNLV in 1991. No undefeated team has won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship since Indiana in 1976 — UNLV lost to eventual champion Duke in 1991. So the question is simple: are you rooting for history or against it?
Like many of the most memorable college basketball teams, Kentucky is reflective of its era, providing us with a referendum about the way the game is played and the traits it most values. From John Wooden’s UCLA juggernaut to Bobby Knight’s tenaciously driven Indiana crew, to Dean Smith’s Carolina Way, to Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV outlaws, to the Fab Five, and to the enduring dominance of Duke, we assign labels and identities to these squads. It is, at best, short-sighted. At worst, it is lazy and inaccurate to distill our champions into these neatly arranged categories, but this is our crutch to help us more easily identify our heroes and villains. While we more freely celebrate champions in other sports, our titular college basketball dialogue is speckled with anxious musings on “systems,” style of play, and the overall embraceability of the game’s leading characters.
This, of course, brings us back to Kentucky, which is the poster child program for the “one and done” movement, whereby elite players utilize college as a six-month pit stop before bolting for the pros. Led by charismatic coach John Calipari, an undeniably brilliant recruiter, motivator, and manager of talent, the Wildcats appear to have an embarrassment of riches. While this has created a sense of inevitably of an undefeated championship season, it is unclear whether we should marvel at the team’s accomplishments or lament the overall dilution of the college game.
Although Calipari has left a trail of scorched earth at his previous coaching posts of Massachusetts and Memphis, he appears to have stacked his Kentucky roster with hard-working, high character players who approach the game with an admirable purpose and respect. Moreover, they can flat-out ball, and their physical talents are awe-inspiring.
In short, there’s a whole lot to like about Kentucky. Yet we still wonder if we should like Kentucky. What does it say about us and about them if they complete the unblemished run to the title and are canonized as one of the greatest teams of all-time?
In the past few days alone, we have seen the Wildcats eviscerate their opponent by 39 points and nearly-miraculously snatch victory in the waning seconds. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what we most want to see from our champions — an undeniable greatness, but a sense that they have faced every challenge and earned every victory.
You still have one week to decide: are you rooting for history?
Do you think the Kentucky Wildcats have a fighting chance at the 2015 NCAA championship? Share your thoughts via the comment section below or tweet me @endbadly.