Envisioning March Madness: Kentucky vs. Virginia Showdown
Issue   |   Wed, 03/04/2015 - 00:41

College football made its long-awaited switch from a single championship game to a four-team playoff this year, to pretty much universal acclaim. Even the playoff’s detractors had to admit that it delivered some good football and some great storylines, and the fact that No. 4 seed Ohio State won also vindicated the format. Of course, the format was modeled on March Madness, the giant college basketball tournament. March Madness is, to me and many others, the most fun time of the year in sports. But this year, part of me wants to see a BCS-style championship game, between two teams that have set themselves apart during the regular season: Virginia and Kentucky. (Virginia is actually ranked third in the current coaches’ poll, below Gonzaga, which is ridiculous. Both teams have one loss, but the Cavaliers have beaten ranked teams VCU, Maryland, Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Louisville, while Gonzaga’s best win was over barely-ranked SMU.)

For people who like sports to symbolize something bigger than a single game, a Kentucky-Virginia game would be great. Kentucky, led by the sometimes controversial John Calipari, is one of the most talented college basketball teams ever. Virginia, on the other hand, epitomizes consistency and continuity; they win by executing the schemes of coach Tony Bennett very precisely.

Calipari is sometimes demonized for taking advantage of the system — he recruits the best players from high school, who have to attend college for at least one year before they enter the NBA draft, wins titles with them, and then sends them on their way to NBA stardom. Critics think that this is cynical, that it undermines the ideal of the student-athlete, and that it destroys the continuity of the college game, making it essentially a minor league for the NBA.

The single best rebuttal to these complaints is that Calipari, at every turn, genuinely seems to have his players’ best interests in mind. The plight of soon-to-be millionaires might not fill a lot of people with sympathy, but the fact is that a lot of people — AAU coaches, professional agents, and so on — try to take advantage of star high school and college basketball players.

The student-athlete complaints are somewhat fair; it’s unlikely that Calipari’s players are taking advantage of their chance to get a pretty good education. But, it isn’t as though Calipari’s players, or even one-and-done players in general, are unique in this; it’s become clear, through various scandals and anecdotes, that many Division I athletes coast through college without doing much serious academic work. (For example, according to Slate, “academically troubled UNC athletes were encouraged to sign up for so-called ‘paper classes’ — which were essentially no-work independent studies involving a single paper that allowed functionally illiterate football players to prop up their GPAs.”) Moreover, the demand that college players take advantage of their education is less altruistic than it appears. The idea that athletes are getting an education in college — and therefore getting something of value — justifies the NCAA system, in which universities make millions of dollars from the athletic exploits of students, who get no monetary compensation. The fact that many of these athletes are not prepared for and therefore not capable of the work required of them is not necessarily an indictment of them or their coaches. It merely reveals the hypocrisy of a system: the NCAA offers a benefit — education — which certain athletes are in no position to take advantage of, leaving them working essentially for free.

For big-time NBA prospects, basketball represents an extraordinary opportunity to get financial security for the rest of their lives. Any damage done to that opportunity is naturally incredible costly for the player. Some college coaches are hesitant to play freshmen, or to let freshmen take a high share of the offense. That type of hesitancy can damage a player’s draft stock and cost him millions of dollars. Calipari recently told CBS Sports, “The 40-year old model of the program — it’s about the program, it’s about the system, no names on the back of the jerseys — we’ve flipped it. Now it’s about the player. It’s about his development.”

This is the type of quote that Calipari’s critics use to paint Kentucky as a sort of advanced AAU team that plays selfish, one-on-one basketball. But the truth is, the Wildcats share the ball and play incredibly hard on defense. When Calipari says he doesn’t have a system, he doesn’t mean that Kentucky doesn’t run plays, or that they have no defensive philosophy, he just means that those plays change year-to-year, based on what type of players are on the team. Calipari doesn’t try to guilt his players into staying at Kentucky when they have to chance to be drafted high in the first round of the NBA draft. Ultimately, Calipari’s claim is that high school players who are potential NBA prospects have a better chance of reaching that potential if they play for him. And players obviously believe him, because the best ones continue to decide to play at Kentucky.

Given his genuine concern for his players, I have trouble casting Calipari as a villain. Still, I tend to gravitate toward teams with more underdog appeal in my rooting interests; it isn’t natural to root for a collection of the most talented players who have banded together to beat the less talented players, regardless of the talented players’ understandable motivations.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett has built his team with relatively unheralded players: only breakout star Justin Anderson is expected to be picked at all in the NBA draft. The Cavaliers start three juniors, a senior and a sophomore. Last year, Virginia surprised everyone by winning the ACC tournament and posting a 30-7 record on the way to a Sweet Sixteen berth. They picked up where they left off last year, sprinting to a 24-1 mark. The Cavaliers win by executing better and making fewer mistakes than their opponents. As Grantland’s Mark Titus wrote, “They’re what you’d get if a basketball instructional manual from 1980 came to life. They’re the German national soccer team of college basketball.”

The differences in the teams are clear at the offensive end. The Cavaliers rely on precise execution, and again, make very few mistakes, turning the ball over less than all but two teams in the NCAA. Kentucky is far from undisciplined offensively, but sometimes things break down due to their inexperience. Fortunately, at that point, the all-world talent takes over.

Whatever their differences, Kentucky and Virginia have one, important similarity: the historically suffocating defense they play. The teams are ranked first and second in a host of important defensive categories, including points allowed per game, points allowed per possession and opponent field goal percentage. Virginia employs the pack line defensive scheme, a system developed by Bennett’s father, who coached at Washington State. The pack line system has the defenders off the ball sag a bit off their men, to be in better help position. This leads to fewer steals, but very few easy baskets for their opponents.

Unsurprisingly, the Cavaliers are well-disciplined on defense; they’ve committed the third fewest fouls in the country. Kentucky, as you might imagine with their elite athleticism, is more aggressive: they are second in blocks per game and in the top fourth of the NCAA in steals per game.