Game Time: Calipari Seeks His First Final Four....You Know, Because The Other Two Never Happened
My favorite part about the NCAA is when they respond to schools that have crossed the line or who have provided safe haven for players who have crossed the line by revoking all of the wins and titles that took place that season, essentially saying "we're erasing your season from existence." The funny thing is, pretty much anywhere you go to look up records and stats from "erased seasons" still has those seasons as being very much alive, just with a small asterisk to the left of the year indicating NCAA punishment. So basically, if you cheat, you get an asterisk. Wow (yawn).... frightening.
I would be way more moved by this "punishment" if they did one of two things -- either (a) have an NCAA employee whose sole job is to go back through every record book and either manually erase or draw a black marker through every "revoked" season, or (b) have someone from the NCAA go back in time in a DeLorean and manipulate it so that those seasons actually didn't occur. How awesome would it be to pop in the tape of the 1993 NCAA Finals and watch Chris Webber vaporize as he's calling timeout at the end of the game, a la Marty McFly?
What does all this have to do with this year's Final Four? Well, according to the NCAA, John Calipari has never been to a Final Four. Sure, we all saw him coaching UMass in a national semifinal game against Kentucky. Hell, I watched Marcus Camby play in high school at Hartford Public. I KNOW that was him running around out there! But Camby, ironically, is the fly in the ointment when it comes to the UMass' 1996 Final Four trip. Alas, according to a 1997 Sports Illustrated article, Camby accepted over $28,000 in cash, gifts, and hookers from a couple swell fellas -- agents, technically -- who wanted to be part of Team Camby. When the NCAA found out, they pulled out the erasers and started scratching UMass' Final Four from existence. So technically, it never happened.
This made Memphis' breakthrough season and Final Four trip in 2008 a redemption story of sorts for John Calipari. With his 1996 Final Four erased by Marcus Camby's bank account and libido, Coach Cal finally had one free of any controversy. That is, until a report came down after the season that the NCAA had reason to believe that one of his players on the 2007-08 team had someone else take the SAT for him. The player was later identified as star point guard Derrick Rose. So it was time to pull out the erasers again and wipe Memphis' 2007-08 season off the face of the earth.
Damn shame for Cal. Two Final Fours, two redactions. In Calipari's defense, the NCAA cleared him of being complicit in either of these situations. (If he was complicit, at least the cheating was with players who were eventual #2 and #1 overall picks, Camby and Rose. You know the old adage, "if you're gonna cheat, don't do it on role players." I kid, I kid....sort of.)
(If you're looking to kill some time, here's a podcast of John Harris and I discussing the "erased from existence" phenomenon on our show.)
So fast-forward to this season, and as far as the NCAA record book is concerned, Calipari is still "seeking that elusive Final Four trip." I will say this -- forget the Final Four; if Calipari doesn't win an NCAA title this season, then it's just never going to happen.
Let's start with his roster -- according to nbadraft.net, the remaining NBA prospects (with their overall ranking) in this year's NCAA Tournament look like this, in order of their 2010 Mock Draft:
1. John Wall, Kentucky
2. Evan Turner, Ohio State
3. Wesley Johnson, Syracuse
5. DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky
8. Patrick Patterson, Kentucky
12. Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky
17. Devin Ebanks, West Virginia
20. Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia
24. Ekpe Udoh, Baylor
30. Quincy Pondexter, Washington
49. Andy Rautins, Syracuse
50. Wayne Chism, Tennessee
51. Omar Samhan, St. Mary's
I think we all knew Calipari had a decided advantage in the "next-level talent" department, especially given that he has an IVY LEAGUE team coming up in the Sweet 16, but this illustrates just how ridiculously stacked his team is compared to what's left. Four of the top 12 players overall, and four of the top six remaining in the tournament. AND he wouldn't have to face either of the other two top six players until the finals.
The only other team with comparable talent quantity in this draft would be Kansas, and that's if Xavier Henry decided to come out (which it just so happens, Bill Self said today Henry is ready to do if he so chooses). And last we saw Kansas they were being booted off the island by something named Ali Farokhmanesh. One monkey wrench for Kentucky might be West Virginia who has Ebanks and Butler as a potent 1-2 punch, but they just lost their starting point guard Truck Bryant to a broken foot yesterday.
In short, Calipari is sitting at a blackjack table with nothing but aces and face cards coming out right now. If he can just make sure that his freshmen don't start acting like freshmen, just don't steer this thing into the rocks, he'll get that elusive first Final Four *.
(* He's actually been to two but I wanted to see what it felt like to slap an asterisk on Calipari; it feels kind of cool!)
As for a quick look ahead to this weekend, you all know what my bracket looks like. That is what it is. I have West Virginia winning it all. Do I feel even remotely confident in that pick? Hell no, and I felt that way BEFORE the Mountaineers lost their starting point guard. It won't stop me from telling you who I'm taking against the bookmakers Thursday and Friday; if nothing else, you can go opposite of me and make a shitload of money!
Also, I rank the desired regional finals for each region from most watchable to least watchable, "watchability" being a purely subjective label from me that factors in style of play, storylines, and the chances of Gus Johnson having an orgasm on national television.
WEST REGION -- Thursday, March 25 (Salt Lake City, UT)
CBS Announce Team: Gus Johnson/Len Elmore
-- 1 Syracuse vs 5 Butler (Line: Syracuse by 6; Prediction: Syracuse wins and covers)
-- 2 Kansas St vs 6 Xavier (Line: Kansas St by 4.5; Prediction: Kansas St wins and covers)
DESIRED REGIONAL FINALS MATCHUPS (by watchability):
1. Syracuse vs Kansas St
2. Kansas St vs Butler
3. Syracuse vs Xavier
4. Butler vs Xavier
Butler's quest to get home to Indy for the Final Four gets a slight edge over Syracuse trying to contain the backcourt of Crawford and Holloway for Xavier. Other than that, I'm rooting hard for chalk here.
PREDICTED ALL-REGIONAL TEAM (* M.V.P.):
* Jacob Pullen, Kansas State
Denis Clemente, Kansas State
Andy Rautins, Syracuse
Wesley Johnson, SyracuseShelvin Mack, Butler
EAST REGION -- Thursday, March 25 (Syracuse, NY)
CBS Announce Team: Dick Enberg/Jay Bilas
-- 1 Kentucky vs 12 Cornell (Line: Kentucky by 8.5; Kentucky wins and covers)
-- 2 West Virginia vs 11 Washington (Line: West Va by 4; Prediction: West Va wins, UW covers)
DESIRED REGIONAL FINALS MATCHUPS (by watchability):
1. Kentucky vs West Virginia
2. Cornell vs West Virginia
3. Cornell vs Washington
4. Kentucky vs Washington
I'll go with the marquee matchup as the most desirable, with six of the top twenty on nbadraft.net playing in that potential matchup. Calipari vs Huggins could be a classic. Beyond that, the story of the region would be Cornell and the quest to get an Ivy League team to the Final Four, hence the Cornell matchups ranking second and third. Kentucky against an average Pac-10 team would easily elicit more yawns than either of the Cornell matchups, especially considering Cornell getting to the Regional Finals will mean they'd have knocked off Kentucky.
PREDICTED ALL REGION TEAM (* M.V.P.):
* John Wall, Kentucky
DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky
Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky
Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia
Devin Ebanks, West Virginia