Calipari’s brilliance has UK in Final Four

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not now.

Maybe last season, when John Calipari had a record five first-round NBA draft picks on his roster. Or a year from now, when he’ll welcome in the nation’s top recruiting class (again) to Lexington.

But this was supposed to be a year just to tread water, a bridge campaign – not one in which the program is now headed to its first Final Four since 1998.

"Nobody thought we could do it," Kentucky junior Darius Miller said after Sunday’s 76-69 win over North Carolina in the East Regional Final.

No one could have prepared for the mass exodus that occurred after last season’s stunning loss in the Elite Eight to West Virginia. Calipari and his staff fully anticipated the one-and-done departures of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – and also expected holdover Patrick Patterson to leave early for the NBA.

However, Eric Bledsoe, forced to play out of position at shooting guard due to the presence of Wall, and Daniel Orton, who averaged a whopping three points per game, also bolted for the league.

Calipari, who has no peer as a recruiter, was still able to haul in another impressive group sandwiched in-between No. 1 classes.

He brought in arguably the nation’s top guard in Brandon Knight, one of the elite forwards in Terrence Jones – and also Top-50 guard Doron Lamb.

But the key blow was delivered by the NCAA just prior to the start of the season when it deemed Turkish big man Enes Kanter “permanently ineligible” for receiving impermissible compensation from a pro team in his homeland.

That was it. Season over.

Without a true post presence and with just six legitimate players, there was no chance this storied program could dream of getting back to the Final Four for the first time since Tubby Smith’s inaugural season at the helm.

Those dreams would have to be put on hold until new recruits Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer arrived in the fall.

The first loss came in Maui to a UConn team that was pegged to finish 10th in the Big East and bound for the NIT. Then there was a loss in Chapel Hill to North Carolina.

Oh, man. This was going to be a long year for Wildcats.

Not even those diehard, lunatic UK fans – the ones that stuck with Billy Clyde Gillispie until the bitter end – would have thought this was possible. Even they understood that this team didn’t have enough bullets in its holster.

I mean, the Billy Clyde Era hadn’t exactly left Calipari with a stocked cupboard. He inherited Patterson and not much else.

There was DeAndre Liggins, once a highly touted, versatile guard who was deep in Calipari’s doghouse last season, when he averaged 3.8 points per game. Miller was the most accomplished returnee, a starter who put up 6.5 points per contest.

And then there was Josh Harrellson, a guy who was once tossed in a bathroom stall during halftime by Gillispie and jettisoned home in an equipment van.

Harrellson went from full-fledged practice player to starter. Liggins went from afterthought to defensive stopper. Miller has been enigmatic throughout the season, but he’s been more than serviceable.

And Calipari has done arguably the most impressive job of his coaching career.

"Unquestionably," said UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who played for and coached under Calipari. "It’s been unbelievable to watch some of these guys that never played before like Harrellson, Miller and Liggins almost turn into stars."

Calipari had Marcus Camby the first time he went to the Final Four with UMass in 1996. He had Derrick Rose at Memphis when he lost to Kansas in the national title game in 2008.

This team has talent, but there’s no Camby or Rose on this roster.

"Those guys have just come together," Kellogg added. "They do what they need to do to win."

Calipari has proven to critics that he’s more than just a recruiting star and used car salesman. He’s also a master motivator and he can coach a bit, too.

"He made us believe," Liggins admitted.

Calipari finally got his old pal, Bob Huggins, last week in Tampa – and then found a way to knock off the tournament’s top overall seed, Ohio State, on Friday night.

The latest upset came Sunday when the Wildcats took care of a second-seeded North Carolina team that defeated Kentucky earlier this season.

"When I saw the board, the seedings, yeah, I am a little bit surprised we’re here," said Calipari after Sunday’s win. "I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off."

The Wildcats have played out of their minds. Knight led Kentucky with 22 points against UNC, but all six of Calipari’s players (that’s really all he has) contributed.

It was clearly a group that lacked leadership earlier in the season, when the Wildcats were unable to win on the road, but Knight has stepped up in that department.

And these guys have become tough. Mentally and physically.

As the players took their turns climbing up the ladder after Sunday night’s victory, with a large pair of orange scissors in hand, each snipping a piece of the net, Calipari walked down the tunnel into the bowels of the Prudential Center.

"I’m not worried about my legacy,” he would later say. "I am trying to win one more game."

Maybe two.