Kentucky coach John Calipari has spent the last six months visiting every city, town, hamlet and holler in the Bluegrass, selling himself and his revitalized program with the kind of energy and showmanship that would make P.T. Barnum blush.
Now, the real show begins.
And the man charged with returning college basketball’s all-time winningest program to prominence is only too aware that all the handshakes, hugs and well-received stump speeches won’t matter if he doesn’t win. Now.
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“They don’t have high expectations in Kentucky, they just like to win a game now and then,” Calipari said, failing to hold back a laugh.
It’s just the way Calipari wants it, and one of the main reasons he left Memphis to rescue a program that’s slowly slipped off the national radar, the nadir coming during Billy Gillispie’s disastrous two-year run with the Wildcats that ended when he was fired in March.
Calipari pledged during his introductory news conference to bring in the best prep players in the country, then went out and brought in a recruiting class so talented that some experts are comparing star guard John Wall and Co. to Michigan‘s Fab Five in the early 1990s.
It’s heady territory for Kentucky, which hasn’t made the Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998, the longest stretch between appearances since the inception of the NCAA tournament.
Calipari knows it’s his job to get the Wildcats, who are ranked fifth in the preseason poll, back to the final weekend of the season. He also knows he must run the program the right way.
He’s made two trips to the Final Four, both of which were vacated due to NCAA violations at Massachusetts and Memphis. Calipari was not implicated in either instance, but he’s well aware that the spotlight at Kentucky is brighter than just about anywhere else in the country.
“(Players) are held to a higher standard than other players across the country, and so am I as a coach,” he said. “You are held to a different standard. That is the privilege of being here. Things that go on over (at other schools) just cannot go on here.”
It’s a lesson Calipari is quickly learning.
Wall must sit out two games and repay about $800 in expenses incurred during unofficial visits to several schools – including Kentucky – in 2007 with Brian Clifton, his AAU coach who was a licensed agent at the time.
Calipari expressed relief at the decision on Friday, but was clearly uncomfortable talking about Wall’s status, which came to light just a few months after the NCAA stripped Memphis of its 2008 national runner-up finish because of academic issues.
“Can we talk about the scrimmage?” Calipari said after being repeatedly asked to clarify Wall’s situation following the annual Blue-White scrimmage Wednesday.
Forgive Calipari if he wants to focus on what happens on the court. He knows the Wildcats are a work in progress as he meshes together six new players with seven holdovers.
Massaging all those egos won’t be easy. Yet Calipari developed a knack for it at Memphis, where the Tigers ran roughshod over Conference USA. The going will likely be tougher in the SEC, though Kentucky was an easy choice to win the East Division title.
“They all want to play and they all want their glory (but they’re) going to have to bury that,” Calipari said.
No problem, said junior forward Patrick Patterson, who chose to stay in school rather than head to the NBA so he could finish what he thought he started two years ago.
Patterson was viewed as the savior of a program in desperate need of some juice after Tubby Smith’s abrupt departure. Two years and zero NCAA tournament wins later, and after practicing under the school’s seven national title banners, he’s ready to add to the collection.
“We know for the past two years we haven’t performed to the top level that Kentucky is used to,” Patterson said. “We definitely want to take Kentucky back to the top again.”
Calipari has stressed he’s going to play the players that will help him win. And though the roster is as talented as its been since Rick Pitino was taking the Wildcats to Final Fours more than a decade ago, Calipari only plans to go eight or nine deep.
He hopes that’s enough to wear down most teams, though he knows sometimes that won’t be enough for the thousands of assistant coaches who will pack Rupp Arena this winter.
“When I first got the job, (the expectation) was going to the Final Four,” he said. “Then a month later it was, ‘We are going to win all the league games.’ Then a month ago, winning the games by 10, and now winning all the games by 21.”
It’s a line that has gotten Calipari laughs wherever he’s gone since April, all part of an act that’s won over a state.