The most refreshingly honest declaration of this year’s NCAA tournament was uttered by none other than the twice-vacated John Calipari.
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“If the choice is talent or experience, I’m taking talent,” the Kentucky head coach said, before facing the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, Ohio State. “You can blame us for not winning, but I’m taking talent.”
The oft-criticized Calipari lost five players in the first round of the last summer’s NBA draft — after his 2009-10 Wildcats lost to West Virginia in the regional finals. This year’s team, with a mere two players projected as lottery picks — Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones (Doron Lamb, it seems, will have to wait) — beat Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina on its road to the Final Four.
What’s the difference? I don’t know, but even Calipari’s opponent in the national semifinal Saturday night would suggest that it’s coaching.
Said UConn coach Jim Calhoun: “John Calipari, who always has been an aggressive, incredible personality, has developed into a terrific basketball coach.”
Actually, given the way superlatives are bandied about in the coaching fraternity this time of year, Calhoun’s remark would qualify as damning with faint praise. Truth is, the problems between the two coaches go back to the ’90s, when Calipari invaded Calhoun’s territory with UMass and signed a kid out of Hartford named Marcus Camby.
UConn supporters liked to say that the Camby recruitment was dirty. UMass partisans would respond by pointing out that Camby’s mom still lived in the same place in the same neighborhood, unlike the mothers of certain UConn stars. Calhoun refused to play the upstart UMass.
In due course, the University of Calipari got over the snub and sent a team to the Final Four. That would be ’96.
Unfortunately, at least for UMass, the tourney run and results would be vacated (vacated? I mean, has the NCAA ever come up with a more preposterous legalism?) after it was learned Camby received improper benefits from prospective agents.
That same season, UConn — led by future NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen — lost to Mississippi State in the Sweet 16. But this team was stripped of its tournament wins and ordered to pay back $90,970 in tournament revenue. Apparently, a couple of UConn players had accepted improper gifts (airline tickets) from — who else? — an agent.
Fast forward, 15 years, with Calhoun still at UConn and Calipari at the all-time blue-blood program, Kentucky. The state of big-time college basketball (not to mention football) is like the state of major league baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s. When it comes to recruiting, you have to assume most of the power hitters are guilty. Cynicism is rampant.
Calipari, who has raised one-and-done coaching to something of an art form, remains the more outwardly charming and more modest of the two. “I do not have this figured out,” said the coach, who held himself the main culprit for losing “six close games in our league.”
“We didn’t know how to finish a game yet because I hadn’t figured out my team yet," said Coach Cal.
Of course, with a $32 million contract, he can afford to be strategically self-effacing. The Wildcats are the third team he has delivered to the Final Four. Memphis’ run, like UMass’, was vacated. But other than Calhoun, who’s counting?
UConn’s coach, meanwhile, has built something substantial and dynastic, or Lear-like, depending on your perspective. He has won two national championships and been to four Final Fours. But unless he retires, he will begin his three-game suspension for “lack of institutional control” next season.
Though his current team is led by an upperclassman named Kemba Walker, Calhoun, like Calipari, would have to admit there is no substitute for talent. Coaches like to praise the fortitude of their hardest-working charges.
But let’s be serious: There’s nothing more coachable than raw talent. That’s why, all these years later, separated by different regions of the country, Calhoun and Calipari are still going after the same kids. And Calhoun is still losing. Last year, it was Knight and Lamb who signed with Kentucky over Connecticut.
“There was a great deal of disappointment,” Calhoun said. “Ironic. We’re playing two kids we went very hard after.”
Should be a good game, a close one, too. It could all come down to free throws, something that traditional Calipari teams have not done well. Then again, as Coach Cal would tell you, they’ve improved from the line.
“What we’ve done to really, really, really improve,” he said, “. . . is we recruited better free-throw shooters.”