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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

For all that decided Kentucky’s loss Tuesday, why did inexperience have to be a factor?

Is John Calipari's system of recruiting entirely broken because of losing one early season game? No. (Photo by James Pennington)

Is John Calipari’s system of recruiting entirely broken because of losing one early season game? No. (Photo by James Pennington)

 

CHICAGO — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, after the No. 2 Spartans held on to beat No. 1 Kentucky 78-74 on Tuesday, nearly made it through his entire post-game news conference before a media member asked a question, the last question of the evening, that unfurled the most incessant of trite pseudo-arguments made rarely in the face of but often in the shadow of Wildcats coach John Calipari.

 

The question:

 

Tom, was this a statement for old-school basketball, that with all the NBA scouts here looking at the freshmen, you have a team with two senior starters, as kind of a reminder that there’s still room in this game for the guy who sticks around and has that experience?

 

Izzo’s response took two minutes, 23 seconds, and it took him 435 words to organize his argument and summarily put down the notion that either side is good, either side is evil, or that either side is even any different philosophically from the other.

 

In the interest of preserving context, Izzo’s full response is pasted below in italics.

 

**

 

Guys, Kentucky’s an anomaly. Not everybody’s like that. Duke’s got a lot of veteran players. A lot, they’ve got some fifth-year, some transfers. Kentucky, he’s found a niche. He does an incredible job with it. But I don’t think that’s the norm right now. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I hope I get more and more one-and-dones or two-and-dones, but I also appreciate having guys around that appreciate listening to Magic (Johnson) talk about making sure that they don’t worry about those things and just play basketball. At the end of the year, things will get taken care of. If it takes you one year or three years, it’s about the final goal and it’s about the process.

 

(Keith Appling) said something pretty cool. He said, ‘I’ve grown up off the court and on the court.’ I don’t think we give kids a chance to grow up off the court. It’s a shame how we’ve sped the process up so fast, God bless the kids who are good enough to go. But I wouldn’t count that. It gets so much attention because Johnny does such a good job of it. That’s not really the norm.

 

I think Bill (Self) said last night, he said he had three guys that had left after a year. You look at Duke who’s had a few, but you look at this year’s team. They have a transfer who’s, what, a junior? They’ve got a junior point guard that’s started three years. They’ve got a sophomore like (Michigan State’s Gary) Harris. They’ve got a couple of guys inside, I think one of them redshirted. That’s pretty much normal. It’s just, John has done such an incredible job, and when you’re getting—I mean, I told him, ‘I don’t know if there’s—how many NBA teams have seven first-round picks?’ No, really. That’s not a knock. That’s just a fact. I don’t know. A couple, I’m sure, but not many.

 

So this team he’s got will get better, but they’ve got some growing to do too. And they’re going to have to get better in some areas. Now (Julius) Randle, he doesn’t have to get any better. Stay like he is. But these other guys, they’ve got to get better and they will get better.

 

It’s a big win for us. I think it was a night of college basketball that, this is an unbelievable setting. Get out there and enjoy the second game, it’s going to be a hell of a game. We’ll see what we can do with a bull’s eye on our back. Thanks.

 

**

 

For a journalist to ask that question, such as this journalist did Tuesday, was to imply old-school is right and virtuous, and new-school is evil and damn it all to hell. It was a loaded question, and if a journalist is to attempt to lead an interview subject to respond in a way that is not original to the subject, it’s irresponsible reporting. The intent of the question asked as it was asked was to reduce Tuesday’s game—which was a great game, and certainly not one to which college basketball at large is accustomed to seeing in early November—to an easy narrative for column inches, a microcosm of the downfall of society, that kids who stay in school can beat the big, bad recruits sometimes if they work hard enough and do things the right way.

 

It’s lazy journalism at best and inciteful at worst. It’s the same folderol that’s filled the college basketball mediascape since Calipari coached Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans in back-to-back years, reducing the coaching pedigree that took him to near-championships at Massachusetts and Memphis to dumb luck and shrewd recruiting tactics intended to tear down the very system that built him up.

 

Old school did not win Tuesday just as new school did not lose. Neither school exists, not in that sense anyway, and they should be given equal mind to other things that don’t exist, which is no mind. Michigan State beat the Wildcats because Keith Appling had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists; because the Spartans scored the first 10 points of the game and didn’t allow Kentucky on the board until nearly five minutes had elapsed; because the Wildcats had 17 turnovers, and they were lazy getting back on defense on several of those, allowing Appling and Gary Harris (the preseason Big 10 Player of the Year) the freedom to score easy transition baskets, the summation of which was simply too steep to overcome; because Kentucky was 20-of-36 from the free-throw line and 14-of-26 in the second half, shots designed to be free points not to be left on the floor in four-point games; because Julius Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds, but the rest of Kentucky’s team shot 39 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from the foul line, and if you take James Young out of that, the field-goal percentage drops to 36.

 

Kentucky lost Tuesday because Michigan State was a better team Tuesday. Appling was a better point guard Tuesday than Andrew Harrison because he played better, not because he was a senior and his opponent was a freshman. To know if experience was actually a factor in Tuesday’s match-up between the two point guards would require seeing inside the minds of two people, neither of whom you (likely) know, and isn’t it enough of a chore to see inside your own mind?

 

Experience versus inexperience in college basketball is an easy subject for filling up the bandwidth because it is pure drivel. There is no way to quantify its actual significance—not a good one, anyway—so blind opinions can be validated in the selfsame second they are randomly formed. Experience (or inexperience) is abstract, and it deserves to be forever banished to the archive of tired arguments for daytime cable debate shows and websites that bait for clicks and social-media reposts with mindless lists and slideshows.

 

Query whether you, the reader, watched Tuesday’s game (or any game you’ve ever watched) to enjoy the basketball or to think long and hard about just what this has all come to, because it’s college basketball, and it demands to be taken seriously. Two teams—teams that polls of professionals have deemed, in the earliest stages of a long season, to be the two best teams in the country—played a riveting, fascinating game Tuesday, and one team beat the other because the rules of basketball stipulate that one team must be declared victorious after a set amount of time (though Kentucky has tied a game once). One team’s win was not a regal victory for a righteous cause to preserve this game of ours, and one team’s loss was not the worst death, the death of an ideal. It was one game, and it was a very good one. It was one data point on a season soon to be full of fun little data points, and we all ought to enjoy each one a little bit more before declaring which is apt for loaded questions and equally befitting responses.

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