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John Calipari calls out the NCAA: Let Bellarmine into March Madness, if it earns a spot

Before he took any questions after Tuesday night’s game, John Calipari delivered his full-throated support of the Bellarmine basketball program and advocated for a rule change that would allow the Knights to claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

And before he even arrived at the postgame podium for his turn to talk, Bellarmine Coach Scotty Davenport had heard about his Kentucky counterpart’s words.

UK defeated the visiting Knights 60-41 in the first meeting between the two programs, a game that was difficult to watch for the entirety of the first half and some of the second before the Cats finally pulled away with a late flurry.

The actual basketball part of what happened was forgettable, but Davenport said the experience of playing against the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena will remain in the memories of his players forever. And the Louisville native, U of L grad, and longtime Cardinals assistant likely won’t be forgetting Calipari’s words anytime soon.

“I’ll tell you this: you don’t have any idea how much I appreciate him doing that,” Davenport said. “He’s the voice of college basketball. He is. He didn’t have to do that. That’s what makes people extraordinary. He didn’t have to do that. Caring is an incredible talent, and we can all learn that.

“Are people sick of me talking about it? Yes. You watched our team play. If they quit with three minutes to go, what would that locker room be like? I am not going to quit on them. I can’t do it.”

Davenport is talking about the current limbo his Bellarmine program is in as it continues its transition from Division II to Division I status within the NCAA class structure. The rule for such a move states that the school jumping up cannot qualify for the NCAA Tournament in the first four seasons of the transition.

Bellarmine began its transition ahead of the 2020-21 season, which means the Knights won’t be eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament until 2025, no matter what happens on the basketball court.

Often, teams making such a move struggle in their first years against D-I competition. That hasn’t happened with Bellarmine, which didn’t miss a single D-II postseason from 2009 to 2019, going to four Final Fours and winning a national title during that run.

Davenport, who became the Knights’ head coach in 2005 following nine years as an assistant at Louisville, has led his program to more winning during its early Division I days. Most notably, Bellarmine won the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament last season, a remarkable feat in year two of the transition but one that ended short of a March Madness berth due to that NCAA rule.

Before Davenport got to the podium Tuesday night, Calipari was there to advocate on his behalf.

“Let me just say this: Scotty has done a great job with that program. We all know,” the UK coach said. “What’s disappointing, you know, if they win their league tournament again, they can’t get in. … I’ve said this many, many times. If you do things for the kids, you’re never wrong.”

Calipari went on to say that if governing bodies such as the NCAA are making decisions based on, “Well, that’s the rule,” without really thinking about why the rule is there to begin with, that’s not the right way to go about it. He noted that the NCAA has changed rules in the past, especially when the results of bad ones turn into negative publicity against the organization.

“Change it!” Calipari said of the transition rule. “It’s not right for the kids. They should be able to be in that tournament, if they do what they did. They’re well-coached. They’re great kids. I hope people will reconsider. Change the rule.”

Bellarmine has taken on all comers since its move, playing a comically loaded schedule ever since jumping up in division. Over the past two-plus years, the Knights have already traveled for road games at Duke (twice), Gonzaga, UCLA, Purdue, West Virginia, Louisville and, now, Kentucky, among many other tough tests away from home.

In the past nine days alone, Bellarmine has played games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena — undoubtedly three of the marquee venues in college basketball.

“Those young men … they will never forget that experience the rest of their life,” Davenport said Tuesday night.

Bellarmine’s NCAA quest

Obviously, the Bellarmine coach, his players and recruits, and the athletics department at large knew the transition rule was in place when the Knights decided to move to Division I status. But they also had no power to change it. It was either stay in D-II or make the move and live through the consequences in the short term. Play by the NCAA’s rules. No means of recourse.

The four-year transition period was first put into effect in 2011, and an NCAA statement from that time explains the rationale behind it.

“The resulting structure will ensure that reclassifying members are committed to the D-I philosophy and operating principles. In addition, this legislation will increase the likelihood that such institutions will operate successful, competitive programs at the D-I level.”

As far as that goes, would allowing Bellarmine early entry into the NCAA Tournament — if the Knights qualify for it on the court — disrupt anything behind the spirit of the rule?

The program is clearly successful, on and off the basketball court. Davenport noted after his team’s conference championship last season that his squad featured five seniors, and they would be leaving the school with a total of eight degrees.

An example of that play-anybody-anywhere philosophy can be found in the Knights’ itinerary to begin this week, as relayed by Davenport on Tuesday night …

They had breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Sunday on the West Coast, with a 9:30 walkthrough, a noon pregame session and a 4 p.m. tip at UCLA. The team got on the bus at 9:30 p.m., caught a flight at 11:45 p.m., flew back east overnight, landing in Atlanta at 6:20 a.m. local time Monday. They were back in Louisville at 10 a.m., with film, practice and more film starting at 4:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, the Knights had an 11 a.m. walkthrough — working around the players’ class schedules — boarded a bus for Lexington at 2:45 p.m., stopped to eat on the way, and played the 7 p.m. game in Rupp Arena.

And “not one word” of complaint from his players, according to the Bellarmine coach.

“Because there’s no entitlement,” he said. “They understand how blessed and fortunate they are.”

Davenport has been lobbying for an NCAA rule change for a while now. The Atlantic Sun has petitioned for a change multiple times, to no avail. Numerous opinion pieces have been written in support of teams in Bellarmine’s position, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Knights winning that league crown earlier this year. No change yet. And the way the NCAA operates, it’s likely there’s no change coming anytime soon.

Just don’t expect Davenport — or the many in college basketball circles who respect him — to shut up about it.

“There’s no words in the English dictionary to express the level of appreciation and admiration I have for our players. None. I’m around them every single second,” Davenport said Tuesday night. “… Going back to what Coach (Calipari) said. I appreciate his comments, because caring is a very, very special talent. And he wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t care.

“And these players — I look them in the eye every day. I’ll tell you this right now: the NCAA has never looked them in the eye one second. And I look them in the eye every day. I have begged them to come. I said I will pay it out of my pocket. Come. Please. Look ’em in the eye. Like I do. Every day.”

Next game

No. 19 Kentucky vs. Michigan

What: Basketball Hall of Fame London Showcase

When: 1 p.m. (EST) Sunday

Where: O2 Arena in London, England

TV: ABC-36

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 5-2, Michigan 5-2

Series: Kentucky leads 5-2

Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-72 on March 30, 2014, in the NCAA Tournament at Indianapolis.

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