Memphis Tigers' John Calipari Doing Best Coaching Job of His Career

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IMarch 4, 2009

Through Feb. 28, John Calipari has won 434 basketball games, more than any other Division I basketball coach except Roy Williams (470) through his first 17 seasons as a head coach.


He and Williams are the only two coaches to win more than 400 games (408, 437, respectively) in the first 16 years of their head coaching careers.


He is only the second coach to win 30 or more games in three consecutive years; Adolph Rupp (do I even need to bother adding the prefix “The Legendary”?) was the first, way back in 1947-49.


He has produced a No. 1 overall NBA draft pick (Derrick Rose, 2008) and a No. 2 overall choice (Marcus Camby, 1996) in different decades at so-called “mid-major” schools.


He is one of only five head coaches (Frank McGuire, Ralph Miller, Eddie Sutton, and Roy Williams being the others) to guide two separate Division I teams to the top slot in the AP Poll.


In 2007-08, he set a single-season record for victories (38) while leading his team within three seconds of a national title before succumbing to Kansas, 75-68, in overtime. He took home the prestigious Naismith National Coach of the Year award.


Ladies and gentlemen, even the uninitiated need only look at the record books to know that John Calipari is one of the most accomplished college coaches in the country.


He will be a Hall of Famer someday.


Yet, with all that he has accomplished, with all that he has done, after all of the victories and all of the kids that he has sent to the NBA, John Calipari has never coached as well as he has this season.


And it is not even particularly close.


It began with the defections of star underclassmen Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts to the NBA. This was not an unexpected development. Calipari, the master recruiter, inked Tyreke Evans (no shocker) and Wesley Witherspoon (a pleasant surprise to Tiger fans).


Still, he had lost 53.4 percent of the team’s scoring, 53.1 percent of the rebounds, and 55.9 percent of the assists from the 2007-08 Championship Game squad.


Things would get worse before they got better.


Neither of the Tigers’ incoming post players—6’9” Matt Simpkins and 6’11” Angel Garcia—was immediately approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse. It would be December before Simpkins suited up for the team.


Meanwhile, Evans and the team stumbled out of the gates with a 6-3 record to begin the campaign. The freshman phenom was a turnover machine, and the Tiger offense was stagnant at best. No one, it seemed, could connect from outside and the two senior leaders, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier, were struggling mightily.


Calipari had seen enough.


He had tried junior Willie Kemp, senior Anderson, and freshman Witherspoon at the point. He loathed the idea of moving Evans, his leading scorer, to lead guard. However, he had no choice. He was being paid to give his team its best chance at victory.


That, he decided, meant sliding Evans over to the point and letting him learn on the job.


Though Evans experienced growing pains, he adapted to the role fairly quickly, and Memphis immediately began winning. The offense was far from a juggernaut, but the Tigers were at least scoring more than the opposition.


Isn’t that the object of the game?


Back on the player eligibility front, as Garcia struggled to rehab an injured knee and awaited word from the Clearinghouse, Simpkins finally suited up. This meant that Calipari had three legitimate low post options (Shawn Taggart, Pierre Henderson-Niles, and Simpkins) plus senior Robert Dozier, he of the 7’3” wingspan and surprising ability to guard the post.


Simpkins, however, was slow to pick up the defensive schemes, and worse yet, seemed to have the feeling that the team needed him so badly that he didn’t have to follow all the rules.


Calipari showed the young man the door as soon as his patience wore thin.


According to sources, Simpkins’ indiscretions included breaking curfew, skipping classes, being late to team meetings, and defiance toward the coaching staff and his teammates.

Calipari suspended him indefinitely but left the door open to the youngster’s return to the team.

“We’ll see if he can work his way back in the program,” Calipari reported to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “He’s under a contract that’s very stiff. I probably haven’t given a player as many chances as I’ve given Matt. But I kind of have that soft spot; I just kind of want to give him one more chance. If he can work his way back on this team and do the right things, he has to change his life, change his habits, change how he thinks.”

Jeff Robinson, a former top 50 recruit from New Jersey, never bought into what Coach Cal wanted him to do (mainly developing his handles and learning to use his off-hand more on drives). At 6’5”, 233 pounds, he was told that the only way he could see playing time was to learn to contribute on the low block.


Though Robinson has the strength and athleticism to be an Adrian Dantley-type down low, he was not happy with the role and sulked as his minutes evaporated. He transferred out of the Memphis program.

Ultimately, Angel Garcia’s transcripts weren’t to the NCAA’s liking. They asked for more verification that he had met all eligibility requirements; Garcia was unable to provide the requested documentation.

He was ruled ineligible to play basketball as a freshman.

With low block monsters like DeJuan Blair, Blake Griffin, Tyler Hansbrough, and Hasheem Thabeet lurking, Cal knew that his team would need to do something drastic during the postseason if they wanted to advance.

He began preparing for NCAA Tournament play by introducing a subtle wrinkle to his interior defensive package. The change was unveiled against Tulsa and Jerome Jordan, the Hurricane’s seven-foot All-America candidate. Jordan had strafed the Tiger defense for 20 points and 13 rebounds during a 55-54 Memphis triumph on Jan. 14 in Tulsa.

Calipari’s scheme bracketed Jordan with Shawn Taggart and Robert Dozier, with Taggart assigned to plant a forearm in Jordan’s back while Dozier would swarm the center from the side.

The final piece of the puzzle was to have one of the Tigers’ ace wing defenders, either 6’5” Doneal Mack or 6’6” Antonio Anderson, front Jordan while still marking the perimeter. Jordan literally had nowhere to go, and only limited passing lanes.

In the Valentine’s Day rematch, Memphis blitzed to a 63-37 rout of Tulsa, holding the entire team to just 14 field goals in 39 attempts, forcing 24 turnovers, and limiting Jerome Jordan to just eight points on 2-for-5 shooting with six turnovers.

Tulsa was held to 15 points in the first half. The 37 points on the evening represented the fewest the team has scored in a game in 57 years (you read that right).

Back on the injury front, Dozier’s only backup, 6’8” Wesley Witherspoon, tore the meniscus in his left knee early in January, undergoing surgery on Jan. 26.

When the long, lanky Witherspoon returned in February, Calipari realized that the young man’s skills would mesh perfectly with what he wanted to do next: introduce zone defenses into the playbook.

Calipari had never done this with one of his teams before.

The jury is out on how effective the zone will be. It is uncertain which configuration of zone the Tigers will primarily run: 2-3, 3-2, or 2-1-2. Cal has used them all recently, and they have all yielded positive results.

In fact, during their most recent game, Feb. 28 against Southern Mississippi, the Tiger zone held USM scoreless for nearly 10 minutes in the first half. The Golden Eagles scored 14 points in the first half and shot 29 percent from the floor for the game.

These early returns indicate that the zone will give this edition of the Memphis Tigers a better chance of success against teams with a dominant offensive player on their frontline.

This season, John Calipari has faced injuries, a suspension, a transfer, and having one of his kids never hit the floor because of academic issues. All of this is added to the massive losses of talent to the NBA, only one of whom (Joey Dorsey) was a senior.


Through it all, Coach Cal has guided his team to a 26-3 record, including the longest current wining streak (20 games) in the country. Their in-conference winning streak has famously stretched to 56 games. They are in the top 10 in all of the major polls and the RPI, while sitting at the very top of the Pomeroy efficiency ratings.


Calipari has turned in his finest coaching job yet, 17 years into his career as a Division I head coach. Whether or not it will culminate in a national title is anyone’s guess.


He should most certainly receive Coach of the Year honors again, however. If he does, it will be another first: No other man has ever won it in consecutive years. It would be fitting for Calipari, who always seems to defy convention, to be the first.