Even at first glance it is easy to see that the upcoming meetings between Vanderbilt and Kentucky in 2011-12 — the first of which is Saturday at Memorial Gymnasium — are noteworthy.
Simply put: They are matchups of two of the best teams in the Southeastern Conference, which means they will factor into determining the regular-season champion and conference tournament seeding. Heck, even ESPN recognized as much when it made plans to bring its College GameDay show to Vanderbilt’s campus for this first one (the return match is Feb. 25 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.).
Look a little deeper, though.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that this is presidential primary season. Or maybe it’s just the obvious differences between the two programs.
Either way, these games seem to be something more. They are — in a way — a referendum on the current state of college basketball. Advocates for reform might even go so far as to see them as battles for the soul of the sport.
Vanderbilt, after all, has put together its most promising team in decades with patience and persistence. Players have stayed in the program, so the current roster includes five scholarship seniors (one of them in his fifth year) and a junior.
In other words, coach Kevin Stallings has developed his team as its members have pursued their higher education. Just look at center Festus Ezeli, who has grown from a raw project into a bona fide NBA prospect, or Jeffery Taylor, who has added unrelenting defense and the ability to score from the perimeter to the incomparable level of athleticism with which he arrived on campus.
Kentucky, conversely, likes to rely on one-and-done superstars. Under current coach John Calipari, one of the sport’s legendary programs has made great use of players such as John Wall, Brandon Knight, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, who show up, play one season and promptly jump to the NBA.
The image of college basketball as little more than a minor league for the NBA thrives because of the likes of Kentucky. The ideal that the sport is just part of the broader educational experience rests with Vanderbilt.
The early returns certainly seem to favor the Wildcats’ way of doing things.
Look at the numbers. Kentucky is 7-2 in NCAA tournament play in its two years under Calipari. That is seven more NCAA victories than the current group of Commodores’ seniors has.
Now consider the perception. Vanderbilt opened the season seventh in the AP Top 25, its highest preseason ranking in more than a generation. Of course, Kentucky was ranked five spots higher.
By mid-January, the Wildcats, with just one loss, were the No. 1 team in the country. At the same time the Commodores, having dropped four, fought to get back in the Top 25, which — at the time — included four teams with five or more losses and another six with exactly four.
It ought to be noted, though, that some feel the most important player on Kentucky’s roster is guard Darius Miller, the lone senior, and not any of this season’s six freshmen.
Even so, the dichotomy is impossible to ignore, particularly when these teams are on the floor together.
Saturday’s contest will not be a winner-take-all affair. It won’t settle the issue of the conference race, let alone the broader ideological debate.
A Vanderbilt victory, though, would offer hope to idealists and reform-minded individuals who believe college basketball has lost sight of its primary purpose.
That makes it — and the one to follow — worth watching, never mind the fact that they ought to be pretty good games