Altman and Larranaga: Restoring Hope to College Basketball

Photo: NY Daily News

For college basketball purists; those who care about balance and building programs, the end of the 2011-12 college basketball season was the sport’s absolute nadir.  The Kentucky Wildcats were national champions, despite being a team assembled in the mode of all recent teams under head coach John Calipari: a collection of high school stars whose featured players first played as a unit just six months prior to the NCAA tournament, and the majority of whom won’t play another game for their school afterwards.

Historically, Calipari’s recruiting strategy had been perceived as mostly harmless, with his collection of one-and-dones who were more focused on draft position than collegiate success.  Calipari was viewed as being more akin to Rick Barnes than Mike Krzyzewski, focusing on developing players for the pros rather than for that season.  Many assumed the furthest eventuality of his strategy would be the 2008 National Championship, when Calipari’s Memphis team, led by Derrick Rose, failed to close the game, allowing Kansas’ Mario Chalmers to hit his famous game-tying three, allowing the Jayhawks to prevail in overtime.

There were programs like those run by Calipari and Barnes that were factories for future pros, and there were programs, like Duke or Michigan State, where players went to if their primary goal was to win championships.  Programs could try to achieve both goals, but they were generally designated as one or the other.

As Chuck Klosterman presciently wrote for Grantland last year, once Kentucky won a title, it would signal a shift that could ruin the competitive balance of college basketball, writing,

If Kentucky is simultaneously the most straightforward finishing school for future professionals and the best place to win a national championship, there’s no reason for a blue-chip high school senior to go anywhere else.

Kentucky, whose 2012 recruiting class followed the same doctrine, added four freshmen likely to be first-round selections in this June’s NBA draft, and the singular dominance of that program and college basketball’s elite was meant to begin its ruination of college basketball this year.  Instead, Kentucky is currently predicted to miss the tournament entirely, while recent champions like North Carolina and Connecticut are sitting outside the Top 25.  The 2013 NCAA Tournament is going to be the most wide-open in years.

Photo: Gary Breedlove Photography

I have to admit that I didn’t pay much attention to college basketball earlier in the season; Kentucky’s championship had soured me on the sport.  I had a hard time justifying following a sport that allowed a coach, who bounced from program to program and left each place in NCAA-sanctioned shambles, to not only succeed, but be praised for winning with an squadron of freshmen mercenaries.  Why be interested, if the worst example of a college coach is served up as the image of the sport’s success?  Yet two developments made it easy to reinvest in this college basketball season:

1)      The parity of college basketball, which has seen a revolving door at number #1; including Gonzaga, who became just the fifth school outside a power six conference to reach #1 in the last twenty years.

2)      The emergence of the Ducks.  Oregon won its first seven conference games for the first time since the 1925-26, the year before McArthur Court opened, and despite last night’s disappointing result, can still win a share of the Pac-12 regular season title with a win at Utah on Saturday.

Head coach Dana Altman deserves much of the credit for keeping Oregon on top of the Pac-12 standings all season.  He has meshed a roster of transfers, talented freshmen, and players held over from the previous staff, and gotten it to largely overachieve; doing so while overcoming injury to his most dynamic player, Dominic Artis, in the middle of conference play.

Altman’s a shoo-in to win Pac-12 Coach of the Year, but how does he stack up on a national level in a year when there are plenty of outstanding coaching performances?  Georgetown’s John Thompson III, Marquette’s Buzz Williams, and New Mexico’s Steve Alford are all names that have buzz (no pun intended), but all three led their teams to the NCAA tournament last season.  Kansas State’s Bruce Weber and Saint Louis’ Jim Crews have done terrific jobs – Crews in particular has been spectacular, having the Billikens atop the Atlantic 10, despite his interim role following the death of previous coach Rick Majerus in December.

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The achievements of all those notwithstanding, only two coaches are in position to win a power six conference after missing the NCAA Tournament last season: Altman, and Miami’s Jim Larranaga.  Larranaga’s resume this season makes a strong case: an ACC regular season championship, a Top-10 ranking for the second half of the season, and the last power six conference team to lose a conference game.

What makes the comparison between the coaches so fascinating are their similarities.  Each one was a long-time coach at an established mid-major program, who could have retired with their respective schools.  Yet two years ago, both took on the challenge of rebuilding a program without a significant basketball history in a major conference.  Should Oregon beat Utah on Saturday, two of the six major conference regular season champions won’t be the dynastic, powerhouse programs that regularly win those conferences year-in and year-out, but will instead be schools with coaches who took a chance and built their respective programs to be members of their conference’s elite.  The case for national Coach of the Year is strong for either.

Yet no matter who wins, Altman and Larranaga have done something far more important than any award: Other programs can look at what they have done, and dream that they can do the same.  They can look at Miami and Oregon, and realize that hope has returned to college basketball.

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Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt is a senior writer and managing editor emeritus for FishDuck. Follow him on Twitter @nathanroholt. Send questions/feedback/hatemail to

  • Nathan if you want to be seen as a worthy commentator then you should get your facts straight. Why should I or any reader pay any attention to what you say if you can’t bother to make sure what you are saying is the truth?

    You state “I have to admit that I didn’t pay much attention to college basketball earlier in the season; Kentucky’s championship had soured me on the sport. I had a hard time justifying following a sport that allowed a coach, who bounced from program to program and left each place in NCAA-sanctioned shambles, to not only succeed, but be praised for winning with an squadron of freshmen mercenaries.” And give this as your reason for having had no interest in college basketball.

    If you had bothered to actually look into it, rather than reading the much repeated lies that are posted by anti-Calipari fans, (and we all know how reliable fans are, and how concerned they are about the “truth” when it comes to targets of their anger) you would have discovered that:

    1) The NCAA found neither UMass nor the coaches at fault in the case of Camby, who took money and other gifts from an agent. They in fact stated that they were victims, not the guilty parties. Oh the person who turned Camby in to the NCAA, that would be John Calipari.

    2) Calipari bounced from program to program you say, wow who could condone a college coach accepting an offer to coach in the NBA (with its much bigger pay checks), that would be as bad as a college football coach accepting a position to coach in the NFL, and we surely can’t have that can we? The second bounce would have been when he left Memphis to come to UK, certainly a bigger stage and again bigger paychecks. goodness knows we would never associate with someone who left a job with one company to take another better job with another company, now would we.

    3) If you bothered to read what Calipari writes and says you would know that he is no defender of the “one and done” rule, and is lobbying for at least a two collegiate minimum, but that is going to be decided by the NBA and NBA players association. But why he takes the actions he does is amply explained by the case of Dajuan Wagner, who at the end of his freshman year Calipari tore up his scholarship and told him to go to the draft, because he was unlikely to improve his position by playing another year. he went 6th overall to the Cavaliers, and in his second year developed “ulcerative colitis” which effectively ended his career. Had he stayed in university he would have had no career and no payday. It is what Calipari calls thinking of the player first, if there is no upside to staying in university, then move on, because that door marked opportunity may close on you.

    4) Now continuing about those leaving schools in sanctions, let’s look at the case of Derrick Rose at Memphis and the NCAA’s ruling on on his eligibility. Derrick played on the Tigers during the 2007-08 which went to the NCAA finals. the NCAA ruled Rose ineligible in August 2009, over a year later, due to having someone “unknown” take his SATs for him (before he was ever under Calipari’s or Memphis’ care and control). Because he was ineligible they vacated the teams accomplishments, including their NCAA tournament appearance. Again Calipari was found blameless. The only thing that he was found at fault was allowing Rose’s brother to ride with the team to games without charge.

    Now be a responsible writer check the facts, don’t just take an old Wildcat fan’s word on it. I think you are in for an eye opening experience when you get the facts, read what Calipari has to say about the “one-and-done” rule, and the place of education in his young players lives (he encourages them to come back and finish it, even if only attending summer school classes).

    the rest of your article was interesting, but I wonder how closely you have checked your facts, because you were surely off base about John Calipari.

    • FishStaff

      What Nathan is saying is supported by articles such as this:

      Calipari’s list of offenses is long. I can provide pages of facts that you seem to be overlooking, and quite conveniently, I might add. Fishduck fully supports both Nathan’s opinion and his presentation of facts.

      – Carl L. Blackwell

    • Wheatgerm

      Point of information: The NCAA did not rule Rose ineligible due to having someone “unknown” take his SAT for him. As the investigative report explains, they didn’t make that finding because they didn’t have to.
      The Educational Testing Service, an independent company which administered the SAT, declared Rose’s score invalid after he did not respond to two letters sent to his Chicago home. (He wasn’t at home, of course. He was competing in the NCAA tournament and attending training camp in preparation for the draft). The ETS believed it was Rose’s burden to substantiate the validity of his test score, and if he did not cooperate – he never did – his score could not be accepted.
      The NCAA reasoned that if Rose no longer had a valid SAT score on record, he was ineligible ab initio. As a result, Memphis was forced to forfeit every game in which he played, notwithstanding the team’s detrimental reliance on the NCAA’s previous ruling that he was indeed eligible to play.
      As good lawyers do, the NCAA avoided the difficult issue of academic fraud. (The best evidence came from a handwriting expert, who testified that the signature on the SAT might not be Rose’s, but who would not say so to a reasonable degree of certainty). Instead, it relied on a procedural technicality. It was the ETS that declared the score invalid, so it was a simple, if inequitable, step for the NCAA to find Rose ineligible without ever having to address the underlying issue.
      In short, neither the NCAA nor the ETS found Rose guilty of academic fraud. The ETS effectively punished Rose for obstruction, which gave the NCAA an opening to vacate an entire season retroactively.
      Incidentally, UMass was not left in shambles. Many, including Bobby Knight, would have you believe that Calipari left the school on probation. But this comes as news to Bruiser Flint, who took UMass to the NCAA tournament the following two years. Because of Camby’s transgression, UMass forfeited its four tournament games and repaid the tournament revenue. It started the next season fresh.
      But that’s not as good a story, is it?

    • Nate

      This is an op-ed piece, and I’m writing about what drives my
      interest, not uncovering new information.
      To assess the “truth” of my statement is amusing, given that unless you
      were in a room with Coach Calipari 24 hours a day, your statement that you know what he did or did not do is no more valid than mine.

      Still, I don’t know what “facts” in my article I got wrong. Your insinuation of my writing doesn’t mean I said something. I didn’t say Calipari
      was the source of sanctions, I said he has left programs repeatedly which were sanctioned following his exit.

      Nowhere in there did I say Calipari shouldn’t be allowed to
      coach, or that Kentucky didn’t deserve to win last year’s championship. I pointed to a coach who had a lot of smoke with, you are correct – no proven fire, as a one of the reasons I lost interest in the national scene of college basketball.

      Another reason for my disinterest, regardless of his involvement in prior
      schools’ sanctions, was he won a championship with the nation’s best collection of talent. When the team with the best players wins it all, it’s not exciting. It’s status quo.

      That’s the point of this article, I’m just one fan, and when a coach like Calipari wins, it makes me like college basketball less. Coaches and their teams who succeed over superior collections of talent make me like it more. I’m not a jury, there’s no panel rendering a
      verdict on him based on what I wrote, I’m just a single beacon of fan interest; although I hardly doubt that I’m alone, given that they unpredictability of March Madness is the driving force behind its success.

      You know who had a superior collection of talent? Duke in 1992. Did you enjoy when that superior collection of talent won? Because, how
      you felt after that game, is how I felt when Kentucky won last year.

      As I learned from Auburn, some SEC fans are really the best. It’s not satisfying enough to celebrate winning a title; you can’t really enjoy it unless you spend the next decade defending why you didn’t cheat to a bunch of people who will never believe you.