So I’m definitely a few months late on this topic, but I’m gonna talk about it anyway. John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats will begin SEC play tonight against Ole Miss. They will do so while defending a 13-0 record and carrying the expectations of many that they will finish the regular season undefeated. All this because they are certainly the most dominant college basketball team of the One and Done Era and perhaps the best college basketball team ever assembled. Many (although not me for reasons we can discuss another time) expect them to finish the regular season undefeated and win the national championship. A perfect 40-0 season. As such, the question arises of “who actually could beat this team if no team in college is good enough to do it?” and the chorus rises up that you need a professional team of NBA quality to do so.
Now, another unique thing about this particular Kentucky team is that they have actually beaten a professional basketball team. In the preseason Kentucky played, and defeated, Champagne Chalons-Reims of the French Professional Basketball League (LNB Pro A) twice.
However, I don’t know anyone who would argue that league is anywhere near the NBA in terms of level of competition. However, it does show that college “kids” can be professional “men” at basketball if the “men” are of a certain quality athletically. You see, one of the major arguments for why a college team could never beat an NBA team is the fact that it would be a battle between “grown men” and “kids.” But still the narrative persists that “This Kentucky team is so good, they could replace the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA.” To that I say not so. So let’s break down why, even this Kentucky team, perhaps the greatest college basketball team ever assembled, is no match for one of the worst NBA teams ever assembled.
First let’s set some ground rules for this little hypothetical though. First off this game would have to give Kentucky every possible advantage. It would need to be played by college, not NBA rules. There’s no way college kids could run with NBA guys for 60 minutes. And that 24 second shot clock would destroy them. This way the game is shorter in length (always favors upsets) and Kentucky can hold the ball an extra 11 seconds every possession. Moreover, the game would need to be IN Rupp Arena with a sold out UK crowd and 0 NBA fans. Also, I’m talking about a one game exhibition match. Obviously if they played 100 times Kentucky would grab a few wins, but if you put a million chimps and million typewriters in a room for a million years you’ll end up with Shakespeare. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in an “any given night” scenario. Ok. So that’s the setting.
Now we need to figure out which of the NBA’s 3 horrible 5 win teams (5-28 Philadelphia, 5-32 New York, 5-28 Minnesota) belongs in the discussion. Now, one of the parameters of this argument needs to be that all teams are fully healthy, meaning Kentucky would get Alex Poythress back and New York (for instance) would get Carmelo Anthony back. Add that little caveat into the equation and its no surprise to say that Kentucky would stand 0 chance against the Knicks. They’re atrocious this year primarily because Carmelo hasn’t been playing. If he were they would only be “bad” and therefore more than a match for a college team.
So now we have the two 5-28 teams. Minnesota I think we can throw out as well because if you add Kevin Martin back on that team after his injury and look at a roster filled with Martin, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic Kentucky wouldn’t stand a chance. Pekovic would score at will against Kentucky’s frontcourt, dominant though they are, because he’s just too huge, physical, and downright scary and if we tried to load the front court Martin would destroy us from distance. Moreover, Rubio’s passing would mean no amount of switching or clever play would be enough for us. So they’re out.
And that leaves Philadelphia. Clearly the best candidate for this little game. They are reviled by NBA fans of late for tanking, and have actively made efforts to remove talent from their roster in order to stockpile top draft picks. Moreover, while I do buy into the argument that, quite literally, every player on the Philadelphia is a pro and therefore, by their very definition is better than anyone on Kentucky there is a slight hitch with Philadelphia. Often that argument hinges on the “grown man” argument, but in an attempt to cut salary and make their team worse, Philly has essentially assembled a college all star roster out of the last 5 seasons or so of college basketball. In this sense, then, the Sixers have a significant amount in common with a college team and are less the “seasoned pros” we’re often talking about in this discussion.
Ok so now let’s look at that roster. I’m just gonna look at the recent college stars on the team to start with. Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, KJ McDaniels were ALL stars in college. Their teams may have under-performed due to the talent around them but all three of those guys at Syracuse, Washington, and Clemson, respectively, were absolutely studs. Moreover, after playing against NBA talent, would in no way be afraid of Kentucky or intimidated by their athleticism. I love the Harrison’s and Tyler Ulis, but there’s no way any of those three guys could stop Wroten, Carter-Williams and McDaniels from scoring at will. For one thing, the Harrisons’ size is neutralized by those 3 because, like the Harrisons, they’re all 6’5 or taller (all three are listed at 6’6″ but I doubt that). Philly has an extremely long backcourt that I can’t imagine would make things easy for Ulis, and I’m not sure if the Harrisons are used to being the shortest guards on the floor. In fact I’m not sure they’ve ever been the shortest guards on the floor. SO that would certainly be a new challenge. And honestly I’m not sure Booker would even be in the equation here. The guy is a spectacular college player and is going to grow into a good pro, but he’s certainly not there right now. These guys are.
Then there’s a guy named Nerlens Noel. Remember him?
Nerlens may have been the best rim protector Kentucky has ever had. I know he doesn’t have the block records but that is solely because of his injury. Had he finished out the season he would have surely passed Anthony Davis. He is a better defensively player than Willie, Towns, Lee, or anyone on this Kentucky roster, and would give them nightmares defending the rim. He wouldn’t be a major offensive threat, but he’d be better than he was when he was at Kentucky, and he still averaged 10.5 points per game then so I’ve got to imagine he could put up points.
However, admittedly the defense and the battle in the front court would provide Kentucky’s best shot at victory. The Sixers would trot out Brandon Davies and Robert Covington who were good college players and have proved themselves to be good pros, but they’re both in their first year in the NBA. For all intents and purposes they’re still college guys, and it’s entirely possible Willy (for one) could run with them, score on them, and defend them. Philly also has Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who sucks. I mean… he’s just not very good. BUT he does fit the “wily veteran” narrative, and could be a problem for that reason.
In the front court then, Kentucky really would stand a chance. Nerlens would be great on defense but I think Kentucky’s loaded stable of of big men could do something in the game. At least defensively. Offensively, they’ve proven they often struggle against college talent so even if this is Philly’s weakest, most “college like” aspect of their team, I’m not sure Kentucky could exploit it.
All in all, I would expect a combined 65 points from Wroten, McDaniels, and Michael Carter-Williams alone, and whatever the rest of Philly’s roster could manage would just add to the margin of victory.
But I’d like to add that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of that. I don’t believe there will ever a college champion or super team capable of beating an NBA team. I think sometimes people forget that there are only 390 players in the NBA at any given time. Only 390 men, of aaaaall the eligible basketball players in the world, are ever considered good enough to be in the NBA at one time. Moreover, the NBA get’s to draw from a player pool of individuals ranging from age 19 to 39… they have 2 decades worth of individuals to choose from. College teams can only select from a 4 year player pool (sometimes 5 or 6 depending on injuries and exceptions, but that top end is negligibly small).
In college a school like Kentucky can build super teams, and I think that’s part of the allure of this argument. The NBA is restricted by salary caps, Bird Rights, draft picks…. it simply feels like their rosters should be more complicated to put together and therefore inferior to a properly assembled super team. It just isn’t though. With the vast disparities in player pools no college team will ever come close to beating an NBA team at full strength. It just can’t happen.
I don’t hate Kentucky. I love them. And I would like to watch this hypothetical game. I just don’t think it would end the way the blue tinted glasses tell us it would. I get a little annoyed by this argument every time the national media gets bored and it pops up, then college fans start running with it. However, I couldn’t be happier that it’s my team in the mix for the argument this time, because that is just further proof that this is the greatest college basketball team ever assembled, John Calipari is the greatest college basketball coach of the modern era, and Kentucky is the greatest college basketball program of all time.