Column: As Wildcats soar, Calipari sweats a river
What looked like a tributary of the nearby Mississippi River snaked its way down the front of John Calipari’s shirt.
A semifinal against a bitter state rival that Kentucky threatened to turn into a blow-out several times felt like it by the end of the night, despite the 69-61 final score. You just wouldn’t know that seeing Calipari afterward, throwing off sweat like a sprinkler.
Louisville made its last stand with 7:34 left in the game, when two free throws by point guard Peyton Siva pulled the Cardinals back within two points, 53-51. Then the Wildcats much-superior talent woke up. They ran off seven straight points and then, as the floor opened because Louisville’s defenders began taking bigger gambles, the Wildcats turned the final 2 1/2 minutes into an NBA-caliber dunk contest.
Even rapper Jay-Z, who gave Calipari a nod at the start and then spent much of the game looking at his phone, rose up out of his chair when Anthony Davis threw down an alley-oop pass from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with enough force to suck the air out of the arena.
”It’s great stuff,” Calipari said. ”I’m proud of this team; they’re coming together. They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville’s today and held their own.”
Calipari will coach for his first national championship Monday night against Bill Self and Kansas, which denied coach Cal of a title in his last trip to the finals with Memphis four years ago.
Calipari’s latest Wildcats in full flight are a fearsome sight. And Calipari can coach `em up, despite lingering resentment about how he recruits and how several of those kids touch down on campus every year just long enough to memorize the route from their dorm room to the gym. He runs a pro-styled ”dribble-drive” offense that allows his players room to freelance, but Calipari can be downright meticulous – read: stark-raving mad – when they take too much license.
So once again, on Saturday night, he used most of the time he wasn’t screaming at the officials to climb up into his own players’ grills. It’s great preparation for the next stop in their basketball careers, yet it also makes it easy to see why Calipari failed dismally during his brief stint running the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. At that level, the players have no qualms about screaming back, or worse. But in the college game, kids have little choice but to take it and more to the point, Calipari’s lesson plans now include as many carrots as sticks.
With 3:41 left in the opening half, exactly four seconds after a turnover by Wildcats guard Doron Lamb led to an easy layup for Louisville, Calipari called a 30-second timeout. By the time Lamb reached the huddle, Calipari had somehow got both hands around the ball and was squeezing it like an overripe melon. Then he tore into Lamb. And then, coming out of the timeout, the Wildcats ran a perfectly executed play to set up a 3-pointer that Lamb coolly knocked down.
Most of Calipari’s lectures centered on the Wildcats’ inability to feed Davis, who still looks like a teenager until he gets the ball. Then he’s a man among boys. Louisville coach Rick Pitino compared him to Celtic great Bill Russell, except Davis has real offensive skills and a handle you don’t often see in a big man.
Here’s why: He grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-10 over the course of 16 months in high school and still glides around the floor like a guard. Chasing a ball near the out-of-bounds line late in the first half, he got pushed and was forced into the tables where reporters were working. Davis not only caught his balance while picking his way through that crowd, he didn’t even spill a drink. Even that little dance drew a round of applause from the Wildcat faithful.
”We just go out here and play ball, our fans travel a long way,” said Davis, who scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, adding 14 rebounds and five blocks. ”We want to go out there, give them a show and give them what they want, which is a national championship.”
Calipari, now in his third Final Four with three different schools – Kentucky, Memphis and UMass – will be playing in his second national championship game come Monday night. The NCAA and more than a few of Calipari’s rivals objected in the aftermath and both Memphis’ appearance in the 2008 title game and UMass’ 1996 Final Four run were vacated after shenanigans were uncovered at both programs during his tenure. Even the Kentucky media guide that lists those achievements does so with an asterisk dangling at the end.
Calipari’s players care less about those than he does.
”It’s not my rule that they can leave after one year, OK?” he said, answering that question for the millionth time.
”The choice,” Calipari added a moment later, ”is you recruit players that aren’t as good as these players, or you try to convince him to stay and to come back. … All I’m doing is what’s right for these people, helping them reach their dreams. During the season, I tell them it’s about our team. You can see that it is.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.