Four years ago then-Memphis coach John Calipari watched his Tigers falter in the final moments of the national championship game, allowing Kansas to rally to force overtime and eventually win the school’s third title. On Monday night, in his first trip back, Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats fended off a late surge by the Jayhawks to pull a win that capped a stellar, 38-win season for one of the most talented teams in recent NCAA history. As Eric Prisbell reported:
With 71 seconds left in Monday’s national title game, Kentucky star freshman Anthony Davis stepped to the free throw line with his team nursing a five-point lead that was fast evaporating.
When Davis missed the first free throw, Wildcats Coach John Calipari’s mind must have flashed back to 2008 and all those errant free throws by the Memphis team he was then coaching and the squandered nine-point late-game lead against a Kansas team coached in 2008, and Monday, by Bill Self.
But unlike 2008, Calipari won his elusive first national title after Davis, freshman Marquis Teague and the rest of the Wildcats made enough free throws. With a 67-59 victory over Kansas at the Superdome, Kentucky became one of the youngest teams to win a national title. The Wildcats (38-2) earned their eighth national championship in school history and their first since 1998.
“I told my wife, ‘I am glad it’s done.’ I don’t have to hear the drama,” Calipari said afterward. “It’s almost like,‘Done, Let’s move on.’ ”
Hailed as perhaps the best recruiter of the modern era, Calipari’s greatest challenge during his first national championship season was how to get some of the most talented players he has ever coach, almost all underclassmen, to sacrifice individual scoring totals for team accomplishment.
All season, Calipari challenged players by asking, “How do you help us when you are not scoring?” And in the most significant game of Calipari’s career, no one better illustrated his point than Davis, who dominated the national title game in every way except scoring.
As the season wore on, it became increasingly clear that Kentucky — with all its youth — was the most talented team in the country, and the Wildcats displayed that might all tournament long. As John Feinstein wrote:
In a very real sense, the ending of this game and this season was a microcosm of what college basketball is in 2012. As soon as the final buzzer sounded, the Superdome was filled with sound, not from celebrating fans, but from the Hollywood-like pyrotechnics the NCAA insists on bombarding people with in its attempts to glitz up an event that doesn’t need to be glitzed up.
Nowadays, though, all the sound and noise fits because the national title game has the feel of an NBA all-star game, and most of the players who make it to the Final Four dream first of that game and the billboards and shoe deals that come with it rather than the game Kentucky won on Monday night.
Perhaps it is time for the NCAA to change it’s cheesy post-championship theme song. Instead of “One Shining Moment,” a new song: “One Moment and Done,” words and music by Calipari, might be more fitting.
The master salesman has been worth every penny of the $32 million Kentucky committed to paying him over an eight-year period when he was hired in 2009. He has figured out how to beat the system. He has pointed out repeatedly and correctly that if he had not recruited Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague to play at Kentucky this season, someone else would have. He got sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — who had a game-high 22 points on Monday, including two huge three-pointers that stretched Kentucky’s margin to 16 midway through the second half — to come back for a second year. He had the added bonus of a senior — stop the presses! — who could shoot the basketball in Darius Miller.
Those six players, inexperienced as they appeared to be, meshed into a team that played hard and smart just about every night for 40 games.
For Calipari, who had two of his previous three Final Four trips vacated due to NCAA violations, a national title was the missing piece in what has become the most convincing recruiting pitch for any coach in college basketball. As Matt Brooks wrote:
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
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