The legacy of John Calipari is as complicated of a legacy as any in American sport. In some places he’s beloved, specifically in 119 of the 120 counties of Kentucky that comprise Big Blue Nation. In other places — such as Rick Pitino’s Jefferson County, which is Cardinal red and which believes Calipari may be the devil incarnate — the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats is despised, as he is in much of the rest of the United States.
We hate winners, unless they are our winners. And we especially hate winners who are perceived to be cheaters, or winners who seem to be a little bit too slick, or winners who win by playing a different sort of game than the rest of us, as Calipari does with his full embrace of the NBA’s one-and-done rule.
Love him; hate him; do whatever you like, because one of the great things about sport is that we can choose which character is our personal hero and which our villain. But after Calipari’s baby-faced Wildcats outlasted Michigan on Sunday — Kentucky’s third greatest-game-of-this-tournament game in a row, following wins over No. 1 seed Wichita State and archrival Louisville — there’s one thing you can no longer deny:
Cal is a great coach. Perhaps a historically great coach, one who has been able to do what has been done only once before in college basketball history by taking a group of five freshman starters to a Final Four.
It’s time for fans to get past any personal biases against him, whether real or fairy tale, and acknowledge this simple, obvious fact.
Basketball is a game of chemistry. Get five of the most talented players in the land who’ve never played together, put them on a court against five mid-level talents who’ve played together for years, roll the ball out there and tell me who you think is going to win. Coach K likes to describe the perfect basketball team as five fingers operating as one hand, and if you saw Calipari’s Wildcats a month ago you might have thought this was five fingers grafted onto a makeshift hand.
The arc of his season has been stormy. Going into it with a historically great recruiting class, Calipari, in an open display of hubris, entertained the possibility of becoming college basketball’s first 40-0 team.
That dream was quashed early, in a November loss against a talented but far more experienced Michigan State team. But after that game, as Calipari expressed relief that this team could do away with all the undefeated talk, he could never have expected exactly how low this team would sink. Nine more losses, most of them close, but losses nonetheless, and losses the most talented team in the nation shouldn’t have.
The most losses a national title-winning team has had is 11, by NC State in 1983. Toward the end of the regular season, it seemed more likely that this talented Kentucky team would miss the NCAA tournament — or at least get knocked out in an embarrassing opening weekend performance — than make a Final Four.
"I started reading what everybody was writing," Calipari said of the preseason hype. "I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be easy.’ This was very difficult for all of us. It was difficult because my choice of coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be, at times selfishness. And now I became a little mean because we had to get it changed."
In the victorious locker room afterward, I asked Aaron Harrison, who hit the cold-as-ice game-winning 3, how it was that Calipari got this team straightened out over the past month. He told me it was a matter of constant grilling on fundamentals, and a much tougher, much more demanding coach than the freshman class expected. But once they understood that this was just how Cal coached, things started falling in place.
When we’re talking about how to judge Calipari’s coaching job in this still-unfinished season, it’s not a discussion about brilliance of X’s and O’s, or an about his grasp of in-game coaching. No, it’s about something far less tangible than that — about taking a group of teenagers, who’ve grown up in the me-first AAU circuit, and teaching them to play as an unselfish team. Five fingers, one hand.
So you can talk all you want about how, against Michigan, Kentucky’s length and athleticism allowed them to dominate the boards (35 to 24) and get more blocks (six to one). You can talk about how the little-used Marcus Lee’s emergence in the Elite Eight (10 points and eight rebounds, seven of them offensive rebounds, despite averaging less than six minutes a game during the season) made up for Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle injury. Or how the Harrison twins have used the NCAA tournament stage to mature exponentially, and finally fulfill their silly potential.
All these things are true.
But what’s more true is how John Calipari, the man you love to hate (unless you’re part of Big Blue Nation), managed to take this group of ridiculous talents — a group that one month ago didn’t look like it fit together — and turn it into one of the hottest basketball teams in the nation. From overhyped and overanalyzed to unexpected and, maybe, unstoppable.
Love him, hate him, no matter. He’s going to go down as an all-time great, and this NCAA tournament might be the perfect example of why.