Kentucky Coach John Calipari paused for a moment to feel the weight of the trophy he had waited so long to touch.
“Well, it’s kind of heavy,” he told Jim Nantz of CBS in the immediate aftermath of the Wildcats’ 67-59 victory over Kansas in Monday’s national championship game.
The road to the pinnacle of college basketball has been a long and tortured one for Calipari, but when asked by Nantz about how it felt for him to finally win it all, the coach quickly shifted the focus to his players.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about these 13 players.”
And on a night that saw a collection of talent rarely seen at the collegiate level live up to its sky-high billing, Calipari spoke the truth.
Still, it’s difficult to deflect the spotlight from a coach whose teams had advanced to three previous Final Fours — and later saw two of those seasons vacated for NCAA violations.
Routinely vilified for past transgressions that erased entire seasons at Massachusetts and Memphis, Calipari’s three-year tenure at Kentucky has been marked by harsh criticism from within the college basketball circle for his willingness (or ability) to stock up on supremely talented freshman with little intention of sticking around college for more than one season.
Calipari has seemingly accepted his role as college basketball’s villain, but a 38-win season capped by a national title and freshman Anthony Davis earning national player of the year honors may have finally validated his recruiting style. And that should be a frightening prospect for the rest of the NCAA, as Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel writes:
Calipari is destroying the conventional wisdom that you can’t build a “program” with players who leave campus after just a few months. It may not be your traditional definition of a program, but it is at least a “system” that showcases talent, prepares them not just to be drafted but to succeed in the NBA and, now with this trophy as proof, win championships.
“I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages,” Calipari said. “It doesn’t matter how young you are, it’s how you play together.”
This 38-victory season has been the final breakthrough for Calipari. The great players already believed in him, but now with these clipped nets he can sell it all.
Selling is what Calipari seems to do best, and it’s why many expect he’ll land some if not all of the remaining undecided top high school senior recruits. And if Calipari does bring in near-consensus No. 1 prospect Shabazz Muhammad, 6-foot-10 forward Nerlens Noel and forward Anthony Bennett, what’s to say they won’t be in Atlanta at next year’s Final Four — even if most of this year’s Kentucky team leaves for the NBA?
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