Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari has a method to March Madness. Whether it works and whether it’s good for the game will be tested in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky, the undisputed No.1 seed on Selection Sunday, will go after the school’s eighth national title with a particular sense of urgency. Four of Calipari’s top players are freshmen who might not stick around past the Final Four in New Orleans. Two could be picked No.1 and 2 in the NBA draft.
For the cream of the crop in college basketball, the one-and-done strategy is practical and profitable. Spend one year after high school — as per NBA rules — honing your game, and go pro. Calipari recruits the best and then, like a dating service expert, achieves quick harmony.
Teams such as Miami, which was snubbed by the selection committee, and Florida State, which has a 27-year-old senior and earned a No.3 seed, still have to build rosters the old-fashioned way.
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But Calipari and his peers at other perennial contenders have capitalized on player turnover, even if they don’t like the one-and-done rule. Forty freshmen have been drafted since the NBA changed its eligibility requirement to halt the parade of high school seniors declaring for the draft.
Still, Calipari has come up short the past two years while a team like Butler, which relied on veteran savvy, advanced to two straight Final Fours. In 2010, John Wall and four other NBA draft picks on No.1-seeded Kentucky lost in the Elite Eight. Last year, the Wildcats lost in the Final Four semis to Connecticut.
Catch them while you can this month — Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — because the way the sport has evolved, there’s little time to savor the stars.
Don’t expect to see two Cinderellas in the Final Four like we did last year with Butler and play-in wonder Virginia Commonwealth. This is the year of dominant top seeds and middling middle seeds. This is the year Calipari could coach Kentucky to its first title since 1998.
Ready to make their own run are No.1 seeds Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State, No.2 seeds Kansas, Ohio State, Duke and Missouri and potential interlopers Wichita State, Vanderbilt, Murray State, Marquette, UNLV and Harvard.
Who will be the George Mason of 2012?
Not Miami. Coach Jim Larranaga’s team had its chances during a difficult season pock-marked by suspensions connected to the NCAA’s Nevin Shapiro investigation, but got beat for the ACC’s marginal fifth spot by N.C. State, who defeated Miami twice.
The weakness of the ACC, a 2-9 record against RPI Top 50 teams and the indefinite suspension of leading scorer Durand Scott hurt UM. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Frank Haith and Western Kentucky (15-18) assistant Jake Morton, who were both at UM when the alleged infractions occurred, are in the bracket.
“We needed one more quality win, and at N.C. State and Virginia we had the ball in our hands at the end,” Larranaga said on ESPN.
Florida State, the top defensive team in the nation, is No.3 in the East region with its opener against No.14 St. Bonaventure in Nashville. FSU could knock off Kansas, which has tripped over lower seeds the past two seasons. Dick Vitale picked FSU to lose to North Carolina in the Final Four.
Florida is No.7 in the West, first playing No.10 Virginia in Omaha, facing a possible second game against Missouri.
South Florida scraped in as one of the last four teams picked. USF will try to play its way into the top 64 on Wednesday against fellow No.12 California.
There wasn’t much controversy: Iona got in, Drexel didn’t; Brigham Young got in and Washington’s snub marked the first time a power conference champ didn’t get a bid. Pat Knight’s Lamar team got in after he excoriated his seniors last week as “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The Big East, Big 10 and Big 12 dominated, with nine and six picks. Of the 37 at-large bids, 26 went to power conferences and 11 went to lesser conferences (up from seven last year). The committee rewarded teams with challenging schedules.
Kentucky was placed in the toughest region, the South, where it could meet defending champ Connecticut. Five NBA lottery picks could be on the court at the same time.
Duke and Kentucky are on a collision course 20 years after Christian Laettner sank that amazing turnaround jumper at the end of one the best games in history.
“Could the tournament selection committee be more predictable?” former Duke and current Heat player Shane Battier tweeted. “Duke and UK in the same bracket in an anniversary year.”
There could be a rematch of the 2009 title game, Michigan State vs. North Carolina.
Or it could be Kentucky, adding six more wins to the 32 it amassed this season.
“The fact that we’re invincible, that’s done now,” Calipari said on ESPN. “We’re going to be in a dogfight. Each game is like your last.”
Kentucky’s fabulous freshmen hope their last is a victory.