To me, it’s about this team winning its eighth straight championship. For this team to come as far as it has, winning its eighth straight – I’m not the most emotional guy, but that was as good as it gets.
-Bill Self, via SportingNews
For as long as I can remember, goals for college basketball seasons had a pretty clearly defined hierarchy of goals. Granted, the big programs always have an eye on the national scene, but each team says at the beginning of each year that they have 3 goals (unless you are in the Ivy League): Win your league in the regular season, make the NCAA tournament, win a National Championship, in that order.
For many schools, the only realistic goals are the first two. No matter how hard a team from a smaller conference plays, there is no way anyone expects to win the National Championship. So they live and die in their conference season. Glory is achieved by positioning themselves well in their conference tournament. These schools measure success by the number of conference titles that they can win. Winning their conference tournament is a reason in and of itself to celebrate. Getting the chance to play on a national stage is just an added benefit.
Since I've been following college basketball, conference play has been the soul of the game. Big games in the non-conference are great to see, but playing the same teams in conference year after year, the games mean much more. In-conference rivals know each other so much better, the games always mean more, and the atmosphere is just that much more electric.
So I was literally shocked to open up an article discussing whether going undefeated in conference is good or bad and see this quote from John Calipari:
Every game we play, it's all about seeding. I mean, we have won over the years a lot of conference championships and tournament championships, but I'm telling you, my teams that isn't what we are playing for. It's all about that seed.
I did a bit more digging, and apparently this isn't the first time that he has said something like that (although I can't find the other quote). But the premise behind that quotation is incredulous. Calipari is basically telling everyone that it doesn't matter that they are the best in their conference, it only matters what they do on the national scale. With a national tournament as random as the one we have, the only true consistent measure of success is that you routinely beat the people that you compete with year-in and year-out. After all, if you can't show you are the best in your own conference, how can you honestly say you are better than everyone else?
Such a statement attacks the very heart and soul of the college game, where school pride is paramount. Beating your biggest rival can make an otherwise horrible season palatable. Even if you win every other game in the conference, losing to a huge rival gives them bragging rights until the next time you meet. For nearly every team in the country, there is a specific team in their conference that is played every year, and is always bigger than all the rest, regardless of the relative level of the two teams.
And so I was appalled to see that Calipari's sentiment was already shared by at least of few fans. As posted by hatvol96 over at www.volnation.com:
It's not arrogance. It's a mission statement. Kentucky and John both have plenty of conference titles on their respective resumes. As it is at Kansas, Carolina, Duke, UCLA, and a few other places, it's about Final Fours and National Championships. If Kevin Stallings said it, that's arrogance. The head coach at Kentucky saying it, that's truth.
It's pretty funny that the poster there tries to rope KU and those other schools into the misguided notion that conference championships don't matter, especially since we have all the evidence to the contrary. There is no way that Self responds the way he did to the win on Saturday if he didn't care about the conference championship. I've seen similar behavior from players and coaches at Duke and North Carolina. You can tell that conference championships means a lot to everyone on those teams, and it is only after that is secured that they start looking toward the national picture.
To sum up how Calipari's statement should rightfully be viewed, I'll turn again to a poster (BasketvolsFan) from www.volnation.com:
Dismissing the importance of conference championships as meaningless is disrespectful to your conference and pure arrogance, regardless of your mission.
Maybe that is why so many fans despise Calipari, because he embodies the arrogance and disrespect that seems to be growing inside of the college basketball community. His continual turnover of one and done players only seems to fuel this view on his team, where the players don't seem to have the same level of investment in their school as those from other schools.
My only hope is that someone can stop them early this year, or else this sentiment may continue to grow, killing the game of basketball we know and love.