I’m rooting for Kansas in tonight’s National Championship Game for a number of reasons that actually have to do with Kansas:
- It seems heartless to root against Thomas Robinson once you hear his story.
- Tyshawn Taylor has been around forever. I always find myself rooting for guys like him nowadays.
- I’ve personally always found Kansas fans to be knowledgeable and classy, so I have no reason to root against their joy.
- Bill Self is a great coach, seems like a hell of a guy, and he is on the short list of coaches I’d want my hypothetical son to play for.
- Also, Bill Self reminds me of Jon Arbuckle and Garfield comics remain awesome (even without Garfield).
But I am also rooting for Kansas tonight for a number of reasons that have nothing at all to do with Kansas:
- As an IU fan, it’s my eternal instinct to root against Kentucky.
- Indiana is currently only two national titles behind Kentucky on the all time list. I’d like to keep it that way.
- I have never been a big fan of John Calipari’s, and there is something about him never being able to win a championship that I find appealing as a “throwback” fan of college basketball.
Yet, as easy as my rooting interest in tonight’s game was to determine as soon as the matchup was set, I have to admit something that I never really thought I’d be admitting: I find it strangely hard to hate these Kentucky Wildcats.
Sure, I hate the history of Kentucky basketball, and I’ve disliked a good number of the players and coaches who have shuffled in and out of Lexington.
And yes, I have bad memories of losses Kentucky has dealt to my Hoosiers over the years, most recently in the Sweet 16 when the Wildcats just happened to make every damn free throw to clinch the end of IU’s season of rebirth.
Then there are the fans. Oh the fans.
The nation got a taste of Big Blue Nation at its worst in the aftermath of the win over Louisville. I will never characterize a fan base by its worst specimens, because all fan bases have knuckleheads, so the “rioting” after the Final Four game didn’t influence my opinion at all. I will just say this: based on my personal experience, I rate Kentucky basketball fans as the least classy and my least favorite fan base in all of sports.
So I hate Kentucky, in general. That will never change. (And if it does, please shoot me and put me out of whatever misery could have led to such a reality. No, really.)
I just don’t hate this Kentucky team anywhere near as much as I usually do. The reasons are numerous.
First, I love Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. I wrote about him last week, focusing specifically on why his continuing battle to overcome a speaking disorder deserves praise. Gary Parrish of CBS Sports wrote about this as well.
Even more than MKG’s battle to overcome his issues speaking, I just love the way he plays. He’s all heart and hustle delivered in a ferociously athletic manner, with an overall skill level that is probably underrated because of how conspicuously hard he plays. He’s going to be a terrific professional player, a leader on a winning team, exactly as he is at Kentucky.
Kidd-Gilchrist has won me over, plain and simple. I couldn’t have cared less what happened to John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and other former Wildcats in the NBA. I’ll be following MKG and actively rooting for him to succeed.
Second, as much fun as Kidd-Gilchrist is to watch, Anthony Davis may be even more fun to watch from a pure basketball standpoint because of the many freakish things he can do. Davis’ shot blocking ability is remarkable. His jump hook is superb. His ability to extend his body and turn bad alley oop passes into breathtaking dunks is absurd. And the way he can play so fluidly anywhere on the floor, at his size, just boggles the mind.
Bob Knight of all people, who famously wouldn’t even say “Kentucky” earlier this year, compared Davis’ build and shot-blocking ability to Bill Russell this morning on Mike & Mike. How’s that for high praise?
MKG and Davis are truly unique basketball players – MKG for his boundless tenacity and Davis for his boundless skill set and potential. As predisposed as I may be to hating them and rooting against them because of where they chose to spend their one year playing college basketball and the laundry they wear on game day, I just can’t do it with these two.
I love watching them play. They play hard; they play unselfishly; and they are nothing but humble in interviews. I’d have loved for either guy to spend one year in Bloomington playing like they do, so I can’t really be a hypocrite and dislike either simply because they are doing so in Lexington.
Concerning the other Kentucky players, I don’t really have strong feelings one way or another. I have nothing against Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, or Terrence Jones; I am just ambivalent to them while noting how well they fulfill their roles for a team plays very unselfishly overall. As for Marquis Teague, I’ll always want to see guys from Indiana do well, so I suppose that helps him fall into the “hard to hate” category as well.
And then we get to John Calipari, who has always been among the easiest people in sports for me to hate. Yet even hating Calipari now seems a bit past the point of being worthwhile.
I know and understand all of the reasons for disliking Calipari. I’ve written about them multiple times here at MSF. Many of them I still agree with and hold onto. I don’t like John Calipari. I never have even during his UMass days, and I doubt I ever will, especially now that he’s roaming the sideline for the hated Wildcats.
But I’ve started to wonder a few things this year:
- If coaches I respect like Tom Izzo and Tom Crean think highly of Calipari, then can he really be as bad ethically as his reputation suggests? If not, then what am I missing?
- Specific to Crean, a number of stories came out before the Sweet 16 game about how close he and Calipari are and how much Calipari helped Crean out as a friend over the three difficult, loss-filled years before this one.
- And then I read articles like this one by Gregg Doyel, and I have a harder time disavowing Calipari and his one-and-done methods.
Is it possible I’ve/we’ve had Calipari wrong all this time?
I’d say, as with most things, that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
I certainly don’t trust that all of Calipari’s methods are all legit, but I also think that to color him as some evil scourge on college basketball, or an overrated coach who just accumulates talent, is unfair. Calipari and Bob Knight are so different yet so alike in how polarizing they are. The truth with Coach Knight was always far more complicated than the polar reactions he galvanized; the same is true I’m sure with Calipari.
I still don’t want Calipari to win a title, because it would still just feel wrong to me for some reason I can’t fully articulate, but I don’t loathe him like I used to.
Don’t worry. I’ll still be rooting against Kentucky mainly because it is still Kentucky after all, and I think I’ll always root against the joy of Big Blue Nation no matter what. But I’ll do so tonight enjoying and appreciating every second of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis all while being more ambivalent about John Calipari than I’ve been in the past. That, in an of itself, will be a different and altogether odd feeling.
But hey, if this Final Four gets vacated before next season like Calipari’s others have, and if Kentucky’s incoming recruiting glass doesn’t feature rare players like MKG and Anthony Davis, things will quickly go back to normal next season.