Kentucky boasts a 31-0 record, a roster including AT LEAST 3 first round picks in this summer’s NBA draft, and a twitter account solely dedicated to smoking hot women dressed in UK gear. It’s needless to say that they are living the good life, without us mentioning the 6 figure salaries they are almost certainly receiving, at least not for another 20 years once this era’s Jerry Tarkanian has retired and we can watch a revealing 30 for 30 telling us what we already knew in the back of our heads. I can see the commercial now:
“What if I told you… that a coach with a history of recruiting violations… needed more than just a blue blood program and promises of an NBA future to lure in the best high school recruits every year…”
Nawww no way!
I’m not going to lie to you, this team is dang good, and by far the most talented in the country this season. College basketball analysts are running out of ways to creatively say, “Kentucky is really good,” but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to convince us that this is the greatest college basketball team ever. The funny thing is how many people nowadays accept whatever the media says as gospel truth.
College basketball analysts are running out of ways to creatively say, “Kentucky is really good”
And the amazing part is, I’ve figured out what ESPN is doing, and the truth took me back to my roots…
How We Got Here: Calipari – The Villain
Everyone knows deep down inside that the one-and-done rule is stupid, and it will definitely be something that we look back on in say 20 years and think (profoundly) “wow that was stupid.” Coaches cannot be penalized for the rules that they are forced to play by, but Calipari has more than just made the most of his situation, the situation has made him.
Imagine the Kentucky program if guys had to stay 4 years. Anthony Davis would be a senior this year (wow!), with front court running mate Nerlens Noel. Would Willie Cauley Stein, or Karl Anthony Towns, still commit to Kentucky knowing they wouldn’t see the floor for several years? Would Davis have gone to Kentucky in the first place knowing he’d have to play behind Demarcus Cousins for 2 years?
Sure Cal would have some excellent teams, but the system would implode due to its lack of sustainability, when the recruiting would inevitably take a dip due to his inability to promise NBA millions in the near future. I have previously compared Calipari to Gordon Gekko from Wall Street, because his entire system is built on the catch phrase “greed is good.” He wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the greed of 5 star recruits, and he would have to settle into the natural ebbs and flows of Division 1 programs.
But in the 1-and-done system, Calipari can have his cake and eat it too (never really understood that saying but pretty sure it applies). He can put all-stars on the court now AND make valid promises to the next generation. The worst part is the “Calipari system” has gained credibility, and at this point has gone way past credibility into becoming the single greatest sales pitch in the history of college recruiting.
I like to imagine it as Calipari selling his soul to the devil, like Coach Bell in Blue Chips
Except in real life, Calipari recruits people who are actually not smart, instead of just pretending to be dumb like Shaq.
Either way, we have ended up here, where Calipari has pulled in the best recruiting class every year since 2009. This year’s squad features 9 McDonald’s Americans, and would be one of the best teams in America if they were coached by Ronald McDonald himself.
How ESPN Created Kentucky
It’s no secret to ESPN or anyone else that having a dominant figure in the sport is good for television ratings.
Tiger Woods is a perfect example. The dominant figure in golf for many years, his presence in the sport is called “The Tiger Woods Effect.” Just his participation in an event causes the ratings to shoot up, and plummet when he is not participating (which has happened too often lately, but that’s an issue for another time). The Players Championship in 2014 was down 54%(!!!!) from where it was in 2013 when Tiger won the tournament in an even less dramatic way than Kaymer did in 2014.
So it immediately came to me what ESPN was trying to do. They were going to create a larger than life “superstar” from the 2015 Kentucky team. Hey, that sounds like the WWE. That’s it! Nowhere are superstars created more effectively and efficiently as World Wrestling Entertainment!
It reminded me so much of my childhood when I was a huge fan of WWE. The company would introduce a new superstar, and you were supposed to believe that this man was unbeatable, untouchable, and there’s no way that the heroes you’ve come to love can defeat him.
Enter Dalip Singh Rana, who stands 7 feet 1 inches tall and weighs in excess of 350 pounds of mostly muscle. In 2006 he debuted on WWE Smackdown as “The Great Khali,” an unbeatable mountain of a man from the Punjab Jungle who was going to take the wrestling world by storm. And he rode the same wave then that Kentucky rides now.
Stage one of the superstar creation process is “The Introduction.”
This Untouchable Kentucky storyline has been cultivated over a long period of time. After Anthony Davis helped UK win a national title in 2012, ESPN ran a special “All-Access Kentucky” show, following Cal inside the locker room and practices. Everyone just had to find out how this mastermind could develop a new team year after year after year, and win championships. While that year’s team went a meager 23-12 and lost first round of the NIT to Robert Morris (unsurprisingly it was very difficult to find information about this season on the internet), the image of Calipari and Kentucky never wore off.
The next year came with headlines that read “Greatest Recruiting Class Ever,” and debates were held comparing them to the Fab Five. That team made an improbable run to the national championship game (as an 8 seed mind you after a decent but not great 21-12 season), and all of a sudden, Calipari-mania was back.
Most of last year’s team returned, and ESPN starting running stories on “is this the greatest team ever,” and “can this team go 40-0” long before this season began. The hype level was off the charts before the Wildcats had ever played a single game this season.
The Great Khali was introduced during the match of a WWE icon, the Undertaker. Undertaker was known as the baddest boy around and had intimidated other superstars for many years, so it was only natural for this new superstar to crash his party. Khali shown intimidating and then dismantling Undertaker with one blow. This introduction is equivalent to Kentucky’s game against Kansas at The Champions Classic. Kansas is a perennial powerhouse, and everyone knows and respects their tradition, but you couldn’t help but be impressed by how Kentucky came in and stomped them by 32 points early in the season.
(Skip to the 6:53 mark)
Stage 2 I’ll call “the buildup,” where we put our unbeatable superstar against far lesser opponents, and they will win in impressive fashion, furthering your belief that they are unbeatable.
Kentucky had many examples of these games (UCLA, South Carolina, Missouri). On top of airing the games, ESPN made sure to flash highlights of the annihilation as much as possible on SportsCenter, so that people know just how impressible they really are.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every single one of Kentucky’s games down the stretch has been on national television, and not only that but on ESPN (like ESPN 1, not 2,3, or 8 “The Ocho”). Even their Saturday 2pm game against South Carolina, which is a prime time spot and sent a game between two top 25 Big 12 teams over to ESPN 2. South Carolina was 12-12 at the time and the game was a massacre, but there it was for everyone to see and say, “wow Kentucky is unbelievable!”
And as for highlights, how many times have you seen this clip?
The Great Khali’s buildup saw him facing “Funaki,” a tiny superstar who’s really only purpose was to get destroyed and humiliated (hope he got paid well). “He’s too big, he’s too strong, no one can compete with that!” (Now read that previous sentence again and tell me you haven’t heard the same things said about Kentucky).
In Stage 3 we need to add “The Drama,” a time where our superstar is tested, and you think he might just be beatable, before he proves his immortality.
ESPN created the catchphrase “pursuit of perfection” early on in the season and has used it mercilessly throughout. The idea that this team could go undefeated had been spoon-fed to us since the very beginning, but now it is being shoveled down our throats with a gigantic snow shovel. But, to add drama, ESPN made sure to play up how much Kentucky was tested, by Ole Miss (OT), Texas A&M (2OT), and even Florida, LSU, and Georgia even though they won by a combined 17 points.
In all of those situations, the Wildcats got tested and pushed and then when it came down to crunch time they pulled away (you can choose to see them as stepping up or as the other team choking, your call). The Florida game was essential because the last group of people who thought “ehhh maybe against another marquee program that was ranked top 10 preseason they will falter,” were addressed. (P.S. these people failed to realize how bad Florida really was).
Khali had the same exact thing happen. After kicking the crap out of more tiny opponents or even groups of tiny opponents (in which the announcers say “THIS MAN IS THE PHENOM”), the company decided to match him up with Hall of Famer and crowd favorite Shawn Michaels. For the first time Khali was really hurt, challenged, and there was doubt over if he was going to win. Then, at the “do or die” moment, the giant realized that he was in fact a giant and manhandled Michaels and won the match.
At this point Khali is must watch television for wrestling fans, just as the company had planned. In the wrestling business, becoming this popular only can mean one thing, title chances.
Stage 4: The Championship
The Great Khali won his World Heavyweight Championship in 2007, in a Battle Royal Match against 19 of the other biggest, strongest, and toughest guys the WWE could field. It was the perfect ending to story arch that went absolutely perfectly for the company. They could not have scripted it any better (oh wait, they did script it).
(Skip to the 21 minute mark)
Kentucky on the other hand has yet to finish their story arch. It remains to be seen whether they will complete the unbelievable 40-0 season and be CROWNED HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE…sorry I got carried away. All I know is, ESPN sure hopes they do. Having Kentucky in the Final Four will astronomically boost the ratings for those games, leading to a lot more revenue for ESPN. Can’t stress that enough.
And in this day and age where sports fans are constantly consumed more and more sports media, almost exclusively from ESPN, isn’t it funny how much influence on you they have? Don’t you kind of want Kentucky to win too?
The “mere-exposure effect” is a psychology principle that says that people develop a preference to things by merely being exposed to them more frequently. If you’re a casual college basketball fan, I can almost guarantee you’ve seen Kentucky more than any other team this year. There’s a good chance you’ve never even watched Arizona play, or Villanova. But wow, did you see Cauley-Stein’s dunk against Florida? That was impressive, that team is unstoppable.
While Kentucky more appropriately fits the villain role that was embraced by such teams as big John Thompson’s Georgetown in the 80’s or Tarkanian’s UNLV in the 90’s, Kentucky has been portrayed more as Hulk Hogan than Andre the Giant.
Calipari has gotten more face time on ESPN this year than every other coach in the nation combined (unofficial stat taken by yours truly), and through his slick talking and coy “we’re just trying to get better” speeches, he has put us all in a trance. With his persuasion skills, maybe I should’ve compared him to Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street instead of Gordon Gekko, because I’m pretty sure Cal could sell an eskimo ice.
And while I can’t tell you definitively whether Kentucky is going to win a national title or not, if Calipari had half of a soul, he would go to his post-national championship press conference just like Coach Bell in Blue Chips did, replaying 5 of my favorite minutes of movie awesomeness of all time.
Crazy how true this is over 20 years after the movie was made. Because in the end, it’s not about education, it’s not about basketball, it’s about money.