Saturday, March 6, 2010

Clanking Shots Off the Back of the Irony

It’s easy to get caught up in the madness of college basketball and miss the entertaining sideshow just off-court.  Let’s take a moment to review some of the rich ironies of the 2009-10 season.

Irony is an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.  You know, irony.  Like when the most maligned college coach in the country, John Calipari, spends a Sunday during basketball season raising over a million bucks for relief efforts in Haiti. 

The “March to 2,000 Wins” that UK “won” by beating Drexel last December 21st holds some ironies, too. 

Bill Mayer, writing for the Lawrence Journal-World, wrote recently, “It’s regrettable that [Kansas University] grad Adolph Rupp factored so heavily in a shady Kentucky march to glory. Kentucky may have hit 2,000 first but KU and UNC will do so more honorably. The Wildcats got there with considerable assistance from cheating and NCAA criminal indifference and oversight.” 

(The World part, in case you’re wondering, refers to the fact that the LJ-W isn’t limited to Lawrence, but also serves Tonganoxie, Baldwin, Basehor, Bonner Springs, Eudora and De Soto.)

"Criminal" indifference is either hyperbole or ignorance, since the NCAA doesn't enforce actual laws, and the irony involving Mr. Mayer is rich.  As most college basketball fans are aware, last year’s national basketball championship was won by a school that was on probation— Kansas. 

According to an ESPN article by Pat Forde, dated 2006 and entitled  “Kansas Isn’t Alone in Cutting Corners”, Kansas may not be alone, but they are alone at the top.  They lead the league with five major infractions.  Ding!  Was that the irony bell ringing?

UK, admittedly, is not far behind with four.  UNC, with one major infraction and probation in 1960, should be offended that Kansas would lump its reputation with theirs.  That probation, by the way, led to the promotion of assistant coach Dean Smith.

I’m not proud of Kentucky’s history of NCAA violations.  All of the top college basketball programs have been sanctioned by the NCAA at some point, but that’s no excuse.  We deserve the shots we take for past infractions.  But I have a theory about why those major programs all have violations— it’s because they win. 

Casinos don’t ban gamblers who count cards, they ban gamblers who count cards and win.  Count cards badly and lose and you’ll go completely unnoticed.  If the casino does happen to notice you because say, you move your lips while you count, they will gladly direct you to the nearest ATM machine and comp your dinner.  Likewise, I doubt that losing basketball programs get a lot of NCAA scrutiny.

The whole “College Basketball’s Winningest Team” race is a bit strange, anyway.  Dean Smith said years ago that he put little stock in this statistic because one of UK’s wins was against the Lexington YMCA (there weren’t a lot of teams available to schedule in 1903) and one of the Tar Heel’s wins was against the Chapel Hill YMCA.  This is probably the worst example one could find, but still it brings into question the equality of competition the top teams in this “race” have faced over the past century.   It’s hard to imagine that a fair analysis of the competition could even be performed.

One thing we can analyze however, is the number of games each team has played and both UNC and Kansas have played far more games than the leader, UK.  At last count, Kansas had played 140 games more than UK and UNC had played 64 more.  Makes you wonder how UK ever got the lead in the first place.

To put this in perspective, if UNC sat out their next 64 games and waited for UK to catch up in games played, and UK won their long-term average of 75.8% of those games, then UK’s lead over UNC all-time would be 65 games instead of the current 16.  If KU obliged UK in the same way, Kentucky’s lead over Kansas would be 124 games instead of the current 18.

So, several teams are apparently competing in a race, having played dramatically different numbers of games, against competition that can’t be compared and, ironically, the team with the fewest games played among the top three has the most wins. Ding!

If Kansas is not the team to be sanctimonious, I was even less inclined to listen to the recent sermon on sportsmanship and propriety from Bobby Knight.

Knight recently said, "We've gotten into this situation where integrity is really lacking and that's why I'm glad I'm not coaching. You see we've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that." 

I'm sure there are lots of things he really doesn't understand and that includes the facts with respect to Calipari. UMass wasn't placed on probation and Memphis' probation is under appeal, but that is not the larger issue.

Bobby Knight may have been a great basketball coach and he may even have a few correct ideas about changes needed within the NCAA, but in questioning John Calipari’s integrity, he was a very large pot calling the kettle black.  Or perhaps he was smoking pot, because his major accomplishment in attacking Calipari seems to have been to bring his own questionable behaviors back into the news spotlight for a generation of fans who might not have been old enough to witness them firsthand (many were televised).

You may remember the classics, including choking a player, grabbing an IU student by the arm because he addressed him as “Knight” instead of  “Your Lordship”, belittling the crime of rape in an interview with Connie Cheung (on national television), getting arrested for assaulting a Puerto Rican policeman while representing his country in the 1979 Pan American Games (probably on Puerto Rican television), firing his shotgun at a man's house during a dispute over the man's complaints that Knight hunted too near his farm, being put on a zero-tolerance leash by IU's president, banning author John Feinstein from IU's home games because he didn't like A Season on the Brink, quickly running Larry Bird off to Indiana State University (unless Bird thought Terre Haute was a better showcase for his talents), and in an event that would presage vice presidential political drama, hunting without a license and accidentally shooting his friend. Ding! Ding! Ding!

Apparently, Knight thinks the word integrity only applies to NCAA sanctions, of which he has none-- whoop-de-doo, coincidentally the same number of NCAA sanctions (zero) that have been given Calipari-- and now Bobby has brought an entire generation previously unaware of his shenanigans up to speed; I hope that makes him happy.

Were it me, I would have preferred my transgressions to remain forgotten. Yes, Your Honor, I admit I shot at that man's house because I was angry with him and that I will be arrested if I return to Puerto Rico, but I didn't want to go back there, anyway, and by the way, I don't have a single NCAA sanction. Ding!

This season, when Kansas State fans began chanting "OVERRATED" near the end of their win over Texas, Knight suggested this chant was unsportsmanlike and that fans should chant "great effort" or "thank you, thank you."  This from the coach who threw a chair across the basketball floor on national television after being called for a technical foul.

Picture Bernie Madoff at courtside leading a chant of, "Full Disclosure!  Full Disclosure!"


“Whoa, baby!” as Dick Vitale would say.  “They rolled out the irony GONG for The General, Mr. Robert Montgomery Knight!  Are you kiddin’ me? ARE YOU KIDDIN' ME?”

Back to the "March to 2,000 Wins", fans seem to believe that someone will actually win this race by taking the lead and keeping it.  It is more likely, though, that Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina will have a string of great years, as UK did under Pitino the last time UNC nearly caught them, or a string of bad years, like  UNC did under Matt Dougherty and UK did under Billy Gillispie, and completely change the leader board.  

(I was relieved to learn that LOST is a popular TV series and not the title of Billie G’s autobiography. Hey, I'm still recovering from Glory Road.)

UNC is nearing the end of one of those horrible seasons, though I am sure they will be back with a vengeance soon.  But, how can a team with seven McDonald's High School All Americans, a coach who has never had a losing season, and a returning All America candidate (Ed Davis) be fighting to avoid last place in an unusually weak ACC?  Only Duke is currently ranked in the top 20.  Doesn't that qualify as an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs?

My UNC friends taunted me last season with predictions that they would take the lead as college basketball's winningest team in 2010 and furthermore, that Kansas might also overtake Kentucky, leaving the Wildcats in third place.  Instead, UK has built significantly on it's lead this year and it appears that Kansas will go deep into the NCAA tournament, passing the Tar Heels by the end of the season and leaving them in third place. 

Ironic, isn't it?

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