06/25/2012 01:40 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

Kentucky's Identity Paradox

Imagine you're the captain of a schoolyard basketball team that loses a heartbreaker to your peers. As you line up to go back inside, you whisper to your rival captain, "Rematch tomorrow at recess!" The next day, his same players line up against your new starting five, some tall kids from around the neighborhood you rounded up the night before. Your team crushes his. Did you avenge yesterday's loss?

This might be an ethical jab at the coach of the 2012 NCAA men's champion Kentucky Wildcats -- a coach who impressively won his first championship in his second Final Four berth after four trips there. (This record raises a puzzling ontological question about the (non-)existence of seasons vacated, according to official NCAA records, for ethical lapses.) Or, it might be an ethical jab at his players' "one-and-done" college basketball careers. (Playing college ball for a year is permitted by a peculiar NBA rule that briefly diverts really good basketball players to college, in case they turn out not to be as good at basketball as they thought, or, more optimistically, they end up really liking college.)

But I am trying not to make this about ethics. Rather, it's about a philosophical problem of identity. Most of the key players on Kentucky's championship team were not on the prior year's team, and they have all declared for the upcoming NBA draft. So is next year's team defending Kentucky's championship? This paradox has puzzled other philosophers for centuries, and it should have tempered the riotous (literally) celebrations in Big Blue Nation.

Wildcat fans seem more interested in celebrating wins by people who temporarily wear polyester tank tops brandished in "Kentucky" than by, say, degree-seeking philosophy students at Kentucky. (This, by the way, is not an intellectual jab at basketball players, or at anyone else for that matter.) Perhaps in their short stays at the university, the players have discovered the paradox of identity through Heraclitus' claim that one cannot step into the same river twice, and grown enamored of Plutarch's question of whether the Ship of Theseus would retain its identity if it were replaced entirely, one plank at a time. Thomas Hobbes might lead them to wonder if their starting five were all drafted by, say, the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, would they become Bobcats or remain Wildcats? (This isn't practically possible, but you'll indulge, won't you, a philosophical thought-experiment?)

Popular opinion among Kentucky-bashers is that its identity paradox is an ethical issue that begins with an impossibly smooth, well-coiffed coach who has enticed yet another new class of high school students to win for him for a year with no genuine intention of shaping them into student-athletes. Among Wildcat boosters, the ethical defense is that Kansas (this year's runner-up) does it too, as do UConn (last year's champion), Duke, North Carolina, and other formerly college basketball programs. Come to think of it, there might be room for ethical debate here after all.

But, ethics aside, Kentucky's identity paradox is principally a philosophical problem. If only its best players stuck around college long enough to solve philosophical problems as well as their coach has figured out how to get around ethical ones.