There are always upsets during the madness of March, but the biggest surprise thus far came in the NIT, the tournament for runners-up and busted bubble teams.
The University of Kentucky, last year’s NCAA champion, would have been considered a favorite for the NIT crown. But they lost in the first round to allegedly-lowly Robert Morris University. Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports spoke with Bill Littlefield, and could barely contain his excitement at this unexpected result.
BL: Kentucky could have enjoyed home court advantage for this game, but it was held in Moon Township, Pa. – Kentucky coach John Calapari’s hometown. What? Was there something else going on in Lexington?
PF: There’s the small matter of the NCAA tournament being played in Rupp Arena. And that has occupied not only the gym, but most of the Kentucky staff, so Kentucky offered to take the show on the road, with disastrous results. But that kind of is in fitting with what’s been a disastrous season all along.
BL: Is it really a disaster? Given that they missed the [NCAA] tournament, was this the cherry on the top of the sour sundae?
PF: Yes, I would say so. The true disaster was being in the NIT to begin with. So then, this was the final injury to a season of insult, or the final insult to a season of injury, however you want to look at it. Kentucky fans were on top of the world last year – and some of them were a bit insufferable about it. Now they have been force-fed some humility here.
And I think that the expectation was that the John Calipari “one and done” method was going to be flawless in perpetuity, and that clearly has not been the case. It has proven to work very well on some occasions, and this year to be a flaming disaster. If you combine that with the fact that bitter rival Louisville is the overall Number One seed and is starting its bid here [in Louisville], and Kentucky fans have nowhere to go and no team to watch, I think it’s a pretty significant comeuppance for Kentucky.
BL: For our listeners who don’t necessarily follow college basketball, “one and done” means you get the guys who are going to play for one year and then go into the NBA. But what went wrong for Calipari and Kentucky this season?
PF: Well, a couple of things. One, they had no veterans left, and there were several guys who were left over from the Billy Gillespie era who played very key roles in Kentucky going to the 2011 Final Four and winning the 2012 national title. And from that standpoint, I think there was a realization that perhaps this team just wasn’t built correctly.
BL: In the most extraordinary statistic I’ve seen this week, ESPN noted that Robert Morris University’s men’s basketball budget came out to just over $300,000 dollars this season, while Kentucky spent more than $200,000 per participant. I guess money doesn’t always buy championships, eh?
PF: No, it doesn’t, and one of the great things about basketball is, you can put five guys on the floor who may not be as celebrated, may not be as big recruits, may not gather as much interest from the NBA, but if things go right – or, in Kentucky’s case, if things go wrong, and your players have no interest in being in the NIT – things like this can happen.
BL: On Wednesday, top high school prospect Julius Randle announced that he’ll play for Kentucky next year. Even before the addition of the 6-foot-9 power forward, Calipari had signed what at least one pundit is calling the “best recruiting class in the history of college basketball.” So, can we expect Kentucky’s troubles to be short lived?
PF: Yeah, I think so. I think Kentucky will be back to being a very powerful force again next season… but, yet again, it will be young talent, and are there veterans that stick around from this team that help that group acclimate? That’s going to be the question. No fans really like to play the “wait ‘til next year” card, but that’s the only card that Kentucky has in its deck.