By Canio Marasco
On Sunday, the Griffs’ men’s basketball team will play the Kentucky Wildcats, the second ranked team in the nation, in Lexington, Kentucky.
To say the game will be a “David versus Goliath” situation may be an understatement. The difference between the two basketball programs couldn’t be starker.
The Wildcats are a perennial power in college basketball because of their tremendous recruiting by Head Coach John Calipari. The Wildcats’ roster is always littered with top recruits in the nation and eventual first round picks in the NBA Draft.
The Wildcats have produced 61 first-team All-Americans. Some recent players that highlight that list are DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Anthony Davis, and Karl Anthony-Towns. Not only are these aforementioned players some of the best Kentucky has had, they all bring all-star caliber play to the NBA. The Griffs have never produced a first-team All-American.
Another indicator of the quality of players the Wildcats have had on their team is the amount of first-round picks they’ve produced. As of the 2016 NBA Draft, Kentucky has produced 43 first round picks. Of those players, three were taken first overall in their respective draft, while 23 were selected in the top 10.
The Griffs have had 21 players drafted into the NBA in their entire history. Of those players, five have played in the NBA. The most recent Griff drafted was Mike Shmrek in 1985 by the Portland Trail Blazers. Kentucky has the same amount of players in the NBA Hall of Fame as Canisius has players to wear an NBA jersey.
This difference in the quality of their rosters also means the Wildcats have had much more national success than the Griffs. The Wildcats have been to the NCAA Tournament 56 times in their program’s history (an NCAA record). They have reached the Final Four 17 times (tied for second-most in NCAA history) and have won the national championship eight times (also second in history).
The Griffs have been to the NCAA Tournament four times, going in three consecutive years (1955, 1956, 1957) and in 1996. In the first two years (in a field of 24 teams), Canisius made it to Regional Finals, while making it to the Regional Semifinals in 1957. In their 1996 appearance (in a field of 64), the Griffs lost in their first game to Utah.
The final facet of differences between the two programs is the coaching that has led the two schools. The Wildcats have had some of the greatest coaches in college basketball history coach at their school. The list includes Adolph Rupp, Rick Pitino, and Calipari. Possibly the most notable, Rupp turned the Wildcats into the perennial power that they are now. Rupp Arena, where the Wildcats games are played, is named after him.
The Griffs have had their share of respectable coaches throughout their history. Bob MacKinnon coached the Griffs for 13 years, bringing the Griffs to their three straight NCAA tournament appearances. For five years, John Beilein coached the Griffs, bringing them to their last NCAA appearance. He is currently coaching one of the biggest schools in the country, the University of Michigan.
The difference between the two programs is glaring. The Wildcats have produced world-class players, have won several national titles, and have been led by some of the greatest coaches in history. The differences are also apparent this year.
The Wildcats’ current roster is loaded with talent and possible future first-round picks. Their most recent recruiting class contains five five-star recruits. Bam Adebayo was ranked the second best power forward in his class, De’Aaron Fox was ranked the second best point guard, Malik Monk was ranked the best shooting guard, Wenyen Gabriel was the fourth ranked power forward, and Sacha Killeya-Jones was the sixth ranked power forward. These top ranked players came from the same recruiting class. From their 2015 class, the Wildcats still have the top ranked point guard, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe.
“It’s an opportunity for our guys to play a game and that’s how we’re looking at it,” Coach Reggie Witherspoon said about the opportunity to play Kentucky. “We want to use this experience to get better. It’s Rupp Arena, a great environment, and we just want to use the experience as a way to get better.”
There is a reason the Wildcats are the second best team in the nation heading into the year. It’s because of the pure talent they have had on their roster. Under Calipari, the Wildcats have had a habit of relying on “one and done” players. These are generally the top recruits that play one year in college before entering the NBA Draft. For some teams, having top recruits declare for the draft is worrisome, as they may not have the talent to replace them. However, the Wildcats consistently have top-five recruiting classes, allowing them to have a constant flow of new talent.
The Griffs had three recruits in the past two years that were given a national ranking. In 2015, Chris Atkinson was the 149th ranked point guard in the country. This past year, Malik Johnson was the 72nd ranked point guard. Also, Spencer Foley was the 139th ranked small forward.
“I want to see how we respond to an environment that is hostile,” said Witherspoon on facing a roster with a talent roster. “Getting on a bus, traveling, being with each other for an extended period of time, will show us where our preparation and attention to detail is. You want to get better at these things every day, but sometimes you have to play games to know where you are with these things.”
From a peer outsider perspective, the idea of traveling to Rupp Arena, one of the best environments in college basketball, must be cool. The Griffs have the chance to play one of the best teams in the country, against players that could be in the NBA next year. No matter their probability of winning, or the outcome, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for the Griffs. If they lose, no one bats an eye. But if they win, they shock the nation – it’s an incredible opportunity.
“The arena is legendary, the team is legendary,” said Junior guard Kassius Robertson, putting into perspective what it means for the team to be able to play in that sort of environment. “It’s just a great opportunity and it’s going to be fun.”