Everyone is rooting for John Calipari and Kentucky to lose, which is why they have to win
NEW ORLEANS – John Calipari has delivered one of the more masterful coaching jobs you’ll see this season.
This is about how they made it, a team of immense individual talent morphing into an explosive, cohesive unit that, despite all the handwringing from the pious establishment, plays the game by any known definition of “the right way.”
The Wildcats (37-2) have improved individually and collectively, blasting through the competition virtually unchallenged. They’ve experienced almost no let-ups. It’s the consistency of the domination that has been breathtaking. And it’s left Calipari with one truism, even if he refuses to acknowledge it.
He better win Monday.
Calipari tries to brush off the pressure, tries to minimize the importance of what winning a national title would mean to his “legacy.” No one does or should believe that. Cal has a killer team here, one that he’s developed, not just recruited, and somehow falling apart against a Kansas club it dominated earlier this season would be a disaster.
It just would.
“I’m telling you, I’m not worried about it,” Calipari said Sunday. “Here is why: If I do right by these kids, if I make sure it’s about players first, if I make sure everything I do [demands] that they do the right things, that they create good habits, that they understand you have to sacrifice for each other, … [demands] they need to improve their own skills, they will drag us where we want to go.”
All true, which is why this is the season for it to happen. This is Calipari’s fourth Final Four and second national title game, and never before has he had a team as talented and as committed to all that he holds dear about the game.
[Pat Forde: We’re owed a great national title game]
They’ve done everything he mentioned. Kansas coach Bill Self said it’s like an “NBA environment in college,” which is “smart. That’s what he should be doing.”
If it doesn’t produce a championship, though, if it doesn’t “drag us where we want to go,” then there is no downplaying the failure.
Yes, it’s a hell of a bit of pressure when second place isn’t good enough. It’s also a testament to what Calipari has in that locker room.
The Kentucky team that takes the floor Monday is not just a collection of recruiting rankings or projected draft slots, but one that blows up the perception this is just a coach rounding up stars by any means necessary and rolling out the ball as they selfishly use the NCAA as way station to the NBA draft lottery.
The Wildcats share the ball. Each of the top six players has taken nearly the exact same amount of shots. UK has 77 more assists than turnovers. The Wildcats run crisp halfcourts sets. They defend with great purpose. They accept non-starring roles. There is limited preening and maximum pats on the back. They are polite and respectful in media sessions.
And they’ve never just relied on their natural ability, even though it might be good enough.
Anthony Davis spent the season staying after practice to work with assistant Kenny Payne and now possesses a lethal jump hook with either hand. Marquis Teague has gone from a potentially out-of-control point guard to a fairly steady floor leader despite being just a freshman. Senior Darius Miller willingly accepted coming off the bench even if it might hurt him with NBA scouts.
And there isn’t a possession where Kentucky isn’t fully invested in getting a stop.
“If you don’t play defense, you’re not allowed to play,” Terrence Jones said.
Too often, praise of “great coaching” comes to those who work with players of limited abilities. It can occur when you’re working from a position of power, too. Often, it’s even harder to deal with – to get guys who can all but taste their professional riches to sacrifice for the benefit of the team.
[Related photos: Kentucky fans riot after win over Louisville]
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Saturday. “But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play.”
As he has for years, Calipari on Sunday had to repeatedly defend his strategy of recruiting the best possible players, which isn’t exactly a novel concept in sports. The truth is, he gets more of the heat because he then turns them into highly successful teams.
Cal doesn’t get every player talented enough to go to the NBA after just one season. He just coaches them better, both individually and in a team environment. He may not be the greatest in-game strategist, especially in close games late. But there is no denying his strength as a practice coach and motivator.
Besides, would we all prefer Rick Barnes? Do people favor watching that listless Ohio State effort in Saturday’s loss to Kansas? Would the backlash subside if Calipari buried his freshmen on the bench in hopes of keeping them around longer rather than fulfill his promise to them and their inner circle of getting them prepared for the league?
“I don’t apologize,” Calipari said.
“A big part of it is the young people have to trust what we’re saying because we don’t have any time for the back and forth,” Calipari said of the secret to coaching players who will only be around for a short period. “When I say it’s a player’s-first program, they know I mean that. During the season [though], it’s all about the team. … They look at the players we’ve coached. If you listen, good things happen.”
They’ve listened. They’ve worked. They’ve improved. They’ve delivered. This is an exceptional team, an exceptional bit of work from the players to the coaches.
This is the finished product of every single thing John Calipari has said his program is about. This is the proof that the critics are all wrong about him and his guys.
“No one person is jealous of another person,” Davis said. “I think that’s what’s special about this team.”
Monday, the special team needs to finish the task. The skeptics are waiting and hoping for a final stumble, for John Calipari’s grand plan to fall apart again in the last second.
Everyone is rooting for him to lose.
Which is why he has to win.
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