Averaging 2.4 points per game for his college career, Wisconsin senior Rob Wilson went off for 30 to lead the Badgers over Indiana on March 9 in one of the best stories of the year in college basketball. Wilson will graduate next month with a degree in human ecology after completing an internship with the Boys & Girls Club, where he would be just as big of a star if he hadn't taken a shot against Indiana.
Wilson wasn't recruited by University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, who favors McDonald's All-Americans, and might not even be able to make the team in an open tryout. Kentucky recruits are focused on getting to the NBA and rarely spend more than a year or two in college before turning pro. But as Cats fans like Col. Matt Earley will point out, it's working for UK. The Wildcats are national champs and already favored to repeat next year, thanks to another stellar recruiting class.
In Kentucky, college basketball is a religion. There are no major league professional teams and the two universities of consequence -- Louisville and UK -- have moribund football programs. All competitive energy is focused on basketball, except during Kentucky Derby week. Calipari has been hired to win national titles and fans expect nothing less.
But while UK alums are sporting celebratory sweatshirts and goofy grins, U.S. News rates their school the 124th best university in the country compared to Wisconsin at 42. And in a ranking of athletic departments based on performance in all sports, UK is currently at 21st, 14 places below Wisconsin. The Cats' success on the basketball court doesn't seem to be spilling over into many other parts of the university.
At a December press conference, a reporter asked Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan where the Badgers fit in with the elite national programs like Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. When will the Badgers take the next step?
"In order to be in the conversations you're talking about, those are for the [programs] that think the game is only about the trophy," said Ryan. "Chasing one is okay. It's a lot of fun."
I think Ryan understands that because his teams have been relatively successful here, his position comes with a bully pulpit from which he can push his vision of college athletics. It includes putting the institution ahead of the individual, making academics the top priority, earning a degree and leaving school with some life lessons in addition to basketball skills. But mostly, that statement indicates that Ryan believes there are more important things than winning basketball games.
Meanwhile, the ends justify the means at UK, where fielding a hoops squad with players who have no intention of finishing their degrees isn't just tolerated, it's embraced. That seems odd for an institution with a mission that seeks to make life better in Kentucky through educational excellence. UW has a similar mission statement, realized by guys like Rob Wilson who also happens to play basketball.