Wednesday, May 5, 2010

UK's grades slip in Calipari's first year

Kentucky had a fantastic season in John Calipari's first year. The Wildcats energized the faithful. They re-established UK as one of the nation's elite programs. And they showed off Calipari's unique ability to not only recruit the best talent in the country but to mesh that talent in ways that produce results on the basketball court.

The only problem? The stuff that happened off the court.

More specifically, the problem here is what happened when those talented Cats got into the classroom. According to an open records request by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky hoops posted a GPA of 2.025 in the fall semester of Calipari's first year. For those of you who can't remember what the GPA scale is, that's barely better than a C average. If the Kentucky men's basketball team were your average student, that student would be fighting hard to graduate, his parents would be wondering if their son needs a "change of scenery," and that son would probably start thinking about changing his major to one of the few professions whose prospective employers don't care about your GPA. (Hello, journalism!) In other words, it's not very good.

The GPA was the lowest of any of Kentucky's 20 athletics teams and the worst among the nine SEC teams that released their average GPAs to the Herald-Leader. Two UK players (only their scores, and not the individual names, were released) had GPAs lower than the 1.8 needed to be eligible for the spring semester. That penalty doesn't take effect until the second year, meaning two of the lowest GPAs -- D+ averages -- belonged to freshmen. The highest GPA was 3.59, which totally screwed up the curve for everyone else. Way to go, anonymous smartypants.

Before we get to the fallout here, it's important to note that Kentucky's administration and athletics department are already making their disappointment clear:

"I was disappointed," UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said recently.

"It's not something we're happy with, I'll tell you that," said Sandy Bell, UK's senior associate athletic director and the person in charge of student services. "And we'll be working on it to get it up. We certainly anticipate that going up in the spring" semester.
That's all well and good, but here's the rub: Did anyone particularly expect John Calipari to field a team of SEC-leading academic minds? Throw out all the stuff about Calipari's recruiting issues in the past, wherein he has been in close proximity to -- but never implicated in -- vacated seasons and academically ineligible players. Simply looking at Calipari's preferred recruiting strategy works. The man likes one-and-done players. He signed them at Memphis. He won with them at Memphis. The same happened in his first year in Lexington. And a one-and-done player has little, if any, reason to care about his grades. He's going to be playing in the NBA in eight months; why on Earth would he study extra hard to get that B?

There's no incentive here. It stands to reason that the more one-and-done players your program has, the less serious your program is going to be about academics. (Of course, not only the one-and-dones had bad grades here; the entire team is responsible. But the correlation seems fair.)

With that in mind, it's a little difficult to criticize Kentucky, because the truth of the matter is that this is 2010's college basketball system. The NBA doesn't care about grades. The NCAA does. And the longer the NCAA goes along with the NBA's rule, the more often we'll see teams like Calipari's -- brilliant on the court, apathetic off -- post GPAs low enough to make their university president squirm.

In the meantime, it's safe to say most Kentucky fans won't much care about this sort of thing. They want to win. College basketball fans might be idealistic at heart, but they get it. It's the NCAA that does its best to maintain the illusion that these are student-athletes, and not just athletes, even if the reality has long proved otherwise. If Calipari keeps churning out 35-3 seasons, 2.025 GPAs will be met with little more than lip service and a collective shrug.

None of this excuses Kentucky, of course -- there were plenty of other programs with one-and-done players this season, and none of them appears to have performed this poorly in the classroom. A 2.0 would be embarrassing for that average college student. It's even more embarrassing when it's an average culled from a team of players with limitless academic resources focused on ensuring that embarrassing GPAs don't happen in the first place.

Throughout 2009-10, Calipari consistently touted Wall's 3.0 average as a measure of accomplishment. Turns out, Wall's excellent leadership on the floor didn't extend to the classroom. Neither, apparently, did Calipari's. Cynicism aside, that's a bad sign for any coach, especially for one as high-profile as Kentucky's. But don't say you didn't see it coming.

Credits: Eamonn Brennan, ESPN

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