On Saturday night, the never-ending battle between Good and Evil will play out again on a basketball court in Dallas, Texas. The Wisconsin Badgers--whom the country has embraced as the representation of what is still good about college athletics--will take on the Kentucky Wildcats--whom many consider to be the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong with the NCAA.
Wisconsin is a team made up of student-athletes who will likely stay in the program for four years and graduate with degrees. When the New York Times did a story on the demands placed upon players during the NCAA Tournament, they featured the Badgers. There was Jason Bohannon doing work for his MBA course (the first active athlete ever accepted into Madison's MBA program)--and Ben Brust completing a NASCAR podcast as part of his independent studies program. And win or lose this weekend in Dallas, by the middle of next week they will be back on campus and in the classroom.
The Badgers are beloved by basketball insiders for their team concept--forged by years of playing together--and for their unselfishness, which means any of their seven or eight regular players could be the leading scorer on any given night. Sir Charles Barkley has become enamored with Frank Kaminsky for his solid fundamentals and the use of such forgotten skills as the pump fake and the pivot.
Wisconsin is coached by Bo Ryan--who has built championship programs at all levels of basketball--and who is respected by his peers for his integrity and knowledge of the game. Bo's kids always play hard, improve every year they are on campus and they graduate.
Meanwhile, Kentucky is made up of so-called "One and Done" freshmen. Players with aspirations to play in the NBA--and who are in the college game only because the rules of the Association bar them from going directly from high school to the pros. They take just enough credits in the first semester to maintain their eligibility for the second semester--where attendance in class is optional at best--since suspensions for poor grades wouldn't become an issue until after the hoops season is done. And win or lose this weekend, they won't be seen on campus after this because there will be agents to hire, shoe and clothing contracts to sign, strength and agility coaches to work with and pre-draft combines to attend.
The Wildcats had been labeled as an "under-achiever" this year. The pre-season Number One has been criticized for selfish play--as potential draft picks worried more about their individual numbers than the team's success. Their main offense is to use exceptional athleticism to overwhelm opponents--driving past them for dunks in the lane or out-jumping them for put-back baskets.
Kentucky is coached by John Calipari--who is one of only two men to ever take three different schools to the Final Four. Of course, the first two UMass and Memphis were placed on probation immediately after Calipari jumped ship to another job and those Final Four appearances were actually vacated by the NCAA for recruiting violations, academic scandals and alleged payments to players. Kentucky, desperate to restore their once-powerful basketball program was willing to overlook Calipari's past transgressions and hired him. He has returned Big Blue Nation to glory--built on a foundation of "One and Dones"--none of whom have ever graduated.
Now if this was a Hollywood movie--or a scripted "reality" show--the Good would rally past the Evil for a dramatic win. But this is sports, and that result is never guaranteed--especially when the Bad Guys bring so much more talent to the floor. However, if Wisconsin does go down to defeat, at least we Badger fans can hold our heads high--knowing that our team is doing it the right way.