The Kentucky Wildcats were the top-ranked team in the country before one of the players starting Monday night's national championship game even stepped foot on a college basketball court.
There will be some college basketball voters walking around North Texas with a big "told you so" look on their faces tonight. History has a way of revising itself. The incredible coaching of John Calipari this season has something to do with that.
Kentucky was not the best team in the country all year—far from it—but when it matters the most, it sure seems to be playing like it.
Kentucky's run to the Final Four shouldn't be a "told you so" situation for the writers, but it can be for Calipari.
Over the last eight years, Calipari has re-written the model for winning in college basketball. No matter the result against Connecticut in the national championship game, he has shown that it's possible to build a winning program by starting from scratch every year. With a win, this season will prove to be his best coaching job yet. If Kentucky cuts down the nets on Monday, it could be the best season for any coach in recent memory.
Calipari's charges were ranked No. 1 in both the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll in the preseason before anyone really knew much of anything about the likes of Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson. This group of talented rookies came into the season with more hype than any recruiting class in nearly 20 years, and voters (rightfully, it turns out) assumed that Calipari's pedigree of turning gifted individuals into a cohesive team warranted the top spot in the rankings.
An early loss to Michigan State had some voters rethinking the decision to install Kentucky as preseason favorites. Two losses in December, to Baylor and North Carolina, saw the Wildcats almost drop out of the Top 25 in both polls.
After the 82-77 loss to UNC on December 14, Calipari could spot his team's deficiencies. Finding a way to fix them was the problem.
"We're not a good team because our emotion is all based on our individual play instead of our team play," Calipari said, via Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com. "We are what we are right now. Got a long way to go."
There was a point in the season when people began to reassess how good Kentucky could be. The preseason plaudits were long gone, replaced by questions, doubts and blame. Calipari clearly saw something the team rarely showed the rest of us, telling Matt Jones of FoxSports.com in an article published on February 27 why he was excited about the rest of the season.
Why am I getting excited right now is I feel like we have a chance. The No. 1 thing is that you have to have the talent to win it. We have the talent. Then you have to work on energy, chemistry and being a player-driven team. A coach-driven team can be good, but a player-driven team can be special, and every day we are getting closer on that. But ultimately you have to have talent. And we have the talent.
Kentucky lost 71-67 in overtime to Arkansas that night, one of three losses in the final four games of the regular season. In total, it lost four of the seven games from the time Calipari made that comment until the start of the NCAA tournament.
So either Calipari saw something in his team that took nearly another month for his players to see, or he's just a great talker who happened to be right.
It's probably both. He had to have seen something to think his team had a chance to make some noise in the tournament after the way it played for much of the regular season. Even the wins down the stretch were less convincing than people expected for a team with that much talent. Combine bad wins with a few tough losses and the same pundits who lauded Calipari's class in October were rightly condemning it in March.
Kentucky was given an eighth seed in the NCAA tournament, which looks patently ridiculous after seeing how good this team can play for five games. But before the SEC tournament, there was talk that the Wildcats were at risk of not even making the NCAA field at all. Imagine that happening now.
"[T]hey were so young, they needed me to be a little different than I was throughout the year," Calipari told reporters, via John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader, before the start of the Final Four. "I think that I’ve never practiced this long, late in the year, they needed it. I’ve never really done some of the things that I’ve done with this team this late, but they needed it. And they have responded to it."
There are nine freshmen on this Kentucky team, and just two players in Calipari's regular rotation played meaningful minutes last season. It returned just 24 points per game from last season—the Wildcats lost 66 percent of their scoring production from last year to the NBA or graduation—and just three players on the current roster played on the 2012 team that won the national championship
That was only two years ago, and the only players on this Kentucky team to lace up for that team were benchwarmers Jarrod Polson, Sam Malone and Brian Long. (Senior John Hood was also on the team that year, redshirting while recovering from a torn ACL.) The four players who were in the program for the title run two seasons ago totaled 329 minutes this season, with most of that—8.5 minutes per game over the season—going to Polson.
It's truly amazing what Calipari has done this year. Not only using the success of back-to-back Final Four runs to recruit the likes of Randle, Young and the Harrison twins, but to put these kids together on a basketball court and—with all the pressure in the world—get them playing the way people expected them to play all season has been nothing short of incredible.
Wichita State's Gregg Marshall has already won the 2014 AP Coach of the Year award after an undefeated regular season. If a final shot in the Shockers' 78-76 tournament loss to Kentucky drops in, this whole story about Calipari's brilliance would never be written. Instead, we might be extolling the virtues of a program builder like Marshall, who used senior leadership and a team-first concept to get an unsuspecting mid-major to back-to-back Final Fours.
But that didn't happen. Kentucky won that game, then beat the defending national champion and in-state rival Louisville before knocking off Michigan—another Final Four team from last year—to get to North Texas.
Calipari seems a bit surprised his team was able to finally put it all together like this, loving every minute of this trip to the Final Four (via Clay):
I will tell you, this has been, for me, to see the joy in individual players, and I’m talking from our best player to one of our walk‑ons, it’s been amazing ride. I will say to you that I think you can see that we coach every player as though they are our star.
They are all stars. Marcus Lee was the forgotten man in Calipari's vaunted recruiting class, but after an injury to sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined him for the three most important games of the season, Lee hopped off the bench and stepped in like he had been a mainstay on the court the entire season.
Lee played 39 minutes the entire SEC season. He scored nine points in conference play. In the NCAA tournament, he has played 25 minutes, scoring 14 vital points against Michigan and Wisconsin.
Lee had taken—taken—10 shots and grabbed just six rebounds since January, and he was 5-of-7 from the field against Michigan (mostly on dunks) with seven offensive rebounds in the game.
How does an obviously talented kid who was relegated to the bench all season behind one of the most heralded lineups in the country come in and contribute like Lee has done in the last two games? Coaching.
'Marcus Lee got coached, even when he was not playing, like he was Julius Randle, the same way,' Calipari told reporters. 'Dominique Hawkins got coached like he was Andrew Harrison. So when their opportunity came, they were ready. These kids are all important to us, not just the guys that are scoring the most points.'
If Kentucky wins on Monday night, how is this not Calipari's best coaching season ever? How is it not anyone's?
Calipari is no stranger to accolades in his career. He won the NABC Coach of the Year award in 1996 while at UMass and 2009 while at Memphis. He was also named Naismith Coach of the Year in both 1996 and 2008, ironically the two seasons in which his teams at UMass and Memphis, respectively, had wins vacated.
Calipari has yet to win an AP Coach of the Year award, probably because most of us in the media seem to hate him—or at least hate the way he builds a college program. But dammit if his way hasn't worked.
Since moving from Memphis to Kentucky, Calipari has won 152 of 188 games and made three Final Fours in four years.
Had it not been for a season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel last season, who knows how good that Kentucky team could have been. (When injury befell his star center this season, Calipari was obviously more prepared. Even without Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats have not missed a beat.)
People saying my dad should be fired, he won 81% of games @ UK. Coach K 79% @ Duke. Roy Williams 78% @ UNC. Pitino 74% @ UL...#forreference— Erin Calipari (@TheErinCalipari) March 4, 2014
There were down stretches this season, but were there really people saying that Calipari should be fired? The man has won 80 percent of his games and went to two Final Fours at Kentucky before this season. The last time Kentucky had been to a Final Four before 2011 was in 1998, in Tubby Smith's first season.
Perhaps the tweet from Calipari's daughter wasn't just referencing people who suggested he get fired, but also speculating that he may leave on his own after such a trying season.
On March 4, the day after that tweet, Dan Patrick said this on his national radio show (via Wildcat Blue Nation):
The indication I got over the weekend is this is it for John Calipari at Kentucky. Now, he's told me how many times on this show, 'no, no, no, this is my last job.' I think what Coach Calipari is finding out is when he won the championship with the one-and-dones, it was truly a remarkable achievement. Because you're taking these kids who aren't polished. They are AAU kids. Spoiled. And you're asking them to play together.
If you watch Kentucky basketball now—with all of the great talent they brought in from high school—it's bad basketball. Nobody can pass. No one. No one. They do have talent there, but that's talent that needs to be developed for two years. Maybe three years.
Did he say years or weeks?
Truth be told, it was bad basketball. Even the Wildcats' win that night was bad basketball. Kentucky beat Alabama 55-48, rebounding after consecutive losses to Arkansas and South Carolina that had many of us in the media doubting how good this team could get in time for the tournament.
That win over Alabama was a terrible game for Kentucky, which shot 24 percent from the floor in the first half and finished the game with a dozen turnovers. The Wildcats also shot under 18 percent from three and somehow still snuck by a bad Alabama team.
Kentucky then lost its next game in the regular-season finale against Florida by 19 points—84-65—putting the bluegrass faithful in full panic mode.
And yet a month later it's Kentucky, not Florida, still playing for a national title. The Wildcats came alive in the SEC tournament, handily beating LSU and Georgia before a narrow defeat to Florida in the title game that gave the Wildcats a ton of confidence heading into the NCAA tournament.
In five games in the NCAA tournament, Kentucky has shown how much it's grown up, winning the last four games against No. 1, 4, 2 and 2 seeds by a total of 11 points.
That bad basketball team from early March is gone, replaced by a group that's playing in early April the way pollsters expected them to play all season.
After all the doubts, Kentucky is a mere 40 minutes away from Calipari winning his second title in three years.
It took a little longer for this group to buy in than his previous teams—certainly longer than the critics expected, at least—but it could make winning this championship that much sweeter.
It would certainly make the job Calipari did with this Kentucky team that much better.