Salute, Don’t Scorn, Kentucky’s Starting 5

Loose Ball: The Wildcats' freshmen and sophomores who are headed to the NBA draft deserve praise.

According to its mission statement, the University of Kentucky is “dedicated to improving people’s lives through excellence in education, research and creative work, service and health care.” Judging by the success of its men’s-basketball players, the school is doing an outstanding job accomplishing its mission.

The Wildcats won the NCAA national championship earlier this month. On Tuesday the entire starting lineup — freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, along with sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — entered the NBA draft in a nationally televised news conference.

The talented teammates, who demonstrated near-perfect unity on the court en route to a 38-2 season, displayed the same cohesiveness by departing in unison. “We made it work,” Jones said. “We all wanted to be there and do it together like we’ve done everything else together.”

Young, exceptional players can be tough to mold into a team, especially if their individual ambitions supersede the collective goals. But the Wildcats were selfless to a flaw, sacrificing personal stats and deferring to one another in a way that’s rare among their generation. And the results were breathtakingly beautiful, old-school basketball to satisfy the grumpiest purist’s soul.

They clearly bought what coach John Calipari was selling. “We tell them all the time,” he said, “be the teammate you want to play with.”

But instead of focusing on Calipari’s exemplary job getting the Wildcats to play together, or the team’s ability to withstand pressure and block out distractions, critics harp on players’ brief tenure under Calipari. Six of his freshmen were selected in the first round of the last two drafts, and he’s had a freshman among the top four picks in four consecutive drafts.

Ohio University professor David Ridpath told the New York Times that Kentucky’s method of constructing basketball teams is “a complete facade,” adding that “anyone who thinks that this has anything to do with the collegiate or educational model is flat-out wrong.” Associated Press columnist Jim Litke mocked Kentucky’s players being “student-athletes.”

But neither Kentucky, Calipari nor the players have anything to be ashamed of. They have been extremely successful at their respective goals. That’s their only obligation, not gaining approval from college-basketball fans and media.

Davis won every major award last season and is a near-lock to be the No. 1 pick in June’s draft. There’s absolutely nothing wrong if he opts to enter the workforce instead of returning to campus next semester. Thousands of college students make the same decision every year.