BASKETBALL MAY BE JUST SO MUCH BOOLA BOOLA TO A LOT OF FOLKS. BUT IF YOU STUDY THE FUNDAMENTALS OF MAKING THE LEAP, WHAT KENTUCKY’S JOHN CALIPARI IS ATTEMPTING IS WORTH KEEPING AN EYE ON

One of the things that makes sports competition so compelling is that it is all about leaping, all the time.

You don’t have to wait forever to know who leapt well and who didn’t. Sports games usually have time limits. When time is up, the game is over, and unless there’s a tie, there is a declared winner. Someone has successfully made the leap and someone hasn’t!

Of course, there is a kind of false heroism involved in the leaping that occurs in sporting competition. And not just sports. In any kind of finite game, actually. I write about this in LEAP! I happen to love Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s argument in The Bed of Procrustes that “Games were created to give nonheroes the illusion of winning. In real life, you don’t know who really won or lost (except too late), but you can tell who is heroic and who is not.”

But Taleb may have been unduly harsh in his dismissal of opportunities for heroism in sports. At the very least, he could have been more accepting of the idea that the sporting arena often offers a fascinating environment for observing different approaches—maybe the right term is different styles—to making the leap.

At the moment, one of the most riveting approaches to making the leap in big-time college basketball is that of University of Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Kentucky has one of the most storied traditions of winning in American college basketball. And it has one of the most rabidly loyal (and excessively demanding) fans bases in sports. Knowing this, Calipari took the coaching job there with a singular theme to his basketball program. He committed to recruiting the very best high school players in the country, regardless of how long they intended to play college ball.

Now, if you follow the sport with any passion at all, you are almost surely aware of the relatively new revolving door “one and done” pattern of the college game. More than a few of the very best high school players are playing one year in college and then entering the NBA draft. If they are as good as they think, they soon find themselves millionaires under contract to play professionally, if not in the United States, in other hoops-crazy countries.

So the issue now facing Calipari with every new season is whether he can take a team replete with talented college freshman and succeed in making the leap.

Last year, he did so spectacularly. His Wildcats won the 2012 national NCAA championship. And then they had six players move on to the pros. This year, the consequences were disastrous. To the dismay of the Big Blue Nation (as Kentucky’s fans call themselves), Calipari’s team didn’t even get invited to the NCAA. And in the lowly tournament of the also-rans, the NIT, they were ousted in the first round by relatively unknown Robert Morris.

So the question on a lot of sports fans’ minds at the moment is whether Calipari can take the cream of the crop among young basketball players every year and get them to the next level faster than almost any other major college coach has ever tried to do. This year, he had another outstanding recruiting class, including four of the top 40 players in ESPN’s Top 100. But he didn’t get them to buy into the idea that there was a next level they needed to get ready to advance to double-time.

Next year? Calipari already has commitments from six of the top 18 players in the ESPN Top 100. Leap Time will be here quicker than you can say “show me your game face!” Nassim Taleb may be right. Maybe the heroism in sporting games is illusory, but if what John Calipari is attempting isn’t something to be learned from the annals of leaping, it is still very entertaining. And may even turn out to be instructive to those of us who see ourselves as professional observers and practitioners of what it takes to get to the next level. If you’d like to know more about Calipari’s leaping experiment, sports columnist Brian Kinel writes about it here.

Even if basketball doesn’t interest you much, it’s reason enough to keep an eye on how Kentucky does in 2014’s hoops competition.

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