Kentucky’s John Calipari: A big winner in dire need of a title

John Calipari enjoys Thursday's open practice. (AP photo)

John Calipari enjoys Thursday's open practice. (AP photo)

Kentucky’s coach comes equipped with not one Hot Button, but two. The first: Is John Calipari a cheater — two of his three Final Four runs were vacated — or not? The second: Has his recruit-a-new-team-of-lottery-picks-every-year cheapened the college game? (Ready, set, discuss.)

Today, for variety’s sake, we take the road less traveled. We ask: Can the nation’s highest-paid coach really coach?

The answer: Yes, with one pesky asterisk attached.

Calipari has had eight 30-win seasons. By way of contrast, Mike Krzyzewski has had 12, Tom Izzo three. Only once since 2005 has a Calipari team not won 30 games, and that was last season’s Kentucky bunch, which won 29. He’s the nation’s best recruiter by three miles, and Wildcats center Anthony Davis figures to be the third Calipari product drafted No. 1 overall in five years.

And yet: Davis, who could be the national player of the year, has taken the fourth-most shots among Wildcats. Fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who might be the second player drafted, has taken the fifth-most. Contrary to semi-popular belief, Calipari doesn’t just round up a passel of McDonald’s All-Americans and roll out the balls. He makes them play the way he wants them to play.

Calipari’s teams defend because he insists on it, and that’s usually the best measure of whether a guy can coach. Big-name players tend to become big names at the other end of the floor, and the man who can take those names and make them guard must know his business. As Tom Crean, whose Indiana Hoosiers will face Kentucky in the South Regional semis, said Thursday: “I don’t think that defensive field-goal percentage [UK's is a microscopic 37 percent] is an accident.”

For all those who believe Calipari guilty of taking the path of least resistance in recruiting the players who’ll win 30 games, here’s another disconnect: On the court, his teams rarely take the path of least resistance. The easy way to win is to spread the floor and loose a fusillade of 3-pointers. Kentucky has taken 337 fewer treys than Florida, the other SEC team to reach the Round of 16.

Said Calipari: “I’d rather us drive and dunk and get layups and draw fouls. … You make us shoot 3’s, we’ll shoot them. We’re a good 3-point-shooting team. That’s just not how we play.”

There’s a sort of honor in that. Also in this: Despite their emphasis on defense, the Wildcats don’t foul much. This is, at least in part, by design. Calipari again: “I tell them, ‘It’s not football. It’s not a touchdown. We’ll score seven seconds later. If you broke down, let him score. Don’t foul.’ I say it over and over.”

Even if you don’t like Calipari, you cannot in good conscience say that he wins big only because he recruits big. He takes great talent and comes close to maximizing it, and with the one-and-done nature of his programs he’s always doing it on the fly. His 2007-08 Memphis Tigers won 35 games, but lost Derrick Rose to the NBA; the next season Memphis won 33 games. Calipari’s 2009-10 Wildcats won 35 games, but saw five players depart early; the next season Kentucky went to the Final Four.

If you take away Calipari’s checkered past — even he jokes about it, saying on the occasion of his 53rd birthday that he was actually 51 because he’d had two years vacated — you cannot help but like the way his teams play the game. His men guard hard and pass the ball. They’re fun to watch. That said …

Here’s the advertised “but.”

Calipari is the only coach ever to lead a national championship game by nine points with two minutes remaining and not win. Memphis lost in overtime after Kansas’ Mario Chalmers tied the score with 2.1 seconds left in regulation, and Calipari did not call timeout. (Kentucky fans can tell you it’s possible to score a winning basket in 2.1 seconds, having seen Christian Laettner do it 20 years ago.)

All Memphis got after the Chalmers trey was a no-chance heave from Robert Dozier. Indeed, Calipari left three timeouts uncalled in regulation that night. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he panicked.

In the 2010 East Regional final, it happened again. Against West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone, his Wildcats could offer nothing except the jump shots he doesn’t much like. They tried 32 treys, making four. The best a team with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson could do was to make like Providence of 1987?

Memphis should have won the 2008 title. Kentucky could have won the 2010 title. Neither did. Now Calipari has what appears to be an even stronger team. If these ‘Cats don’t win it all, Coach Cal will have acquired another label. He’ll be known as the guy who stacks the deck and still goes bust.

By Mark Bradley

63 comments Add your comment

Lee Weber

March 22nd, 2012
5:18 pm

“Has his recruit-a-new-team-of-lottery-picks-every-year cheapened the college game?”

Of course. Kentucky isn’t a college basketball team, it’s a NBA minor league team. When athletic scholarships are ended or severely curtailed, you can blame Calpari first.

Mike

March 22nd, 2012
5:18 pm

Rickster

March 22nd, 2012
5:24 pm

Close, Mike. So close.

RecentWreck

March 22nd, 2012
5:58 pm

Mark, good coach or not (I do think he’s good on the floor), I have no respect for a guy who routinely splits leaving his teams on probation, whether he made them relevant or not.

Paul in NH

March 22nd, 2012
6:09 pm

You need great players to win in college and those guys leave for the pros early. With the NBA’s rule against taking players directly from HS the one and done’s will always be with us. Calipari just takes it to its logical conclusion.

Hubie Green

March 22nd, 2012
6:13 pm

Bottom line in high stakes high paid coaches big time college basketball, win championships. This year’s team seems to have learned from their two losses. His past teams did not. We’ll see.

Mike Jake

March 22nd, 2012
6:19 pm

Coach Cal is a genious. He’s just playing the stupid NBA rule book as it’s given him. It sucks but I will take it. It beats a little hope season. Blame the NBA for the rule, not CAL!! GO WILDCATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posh

March 22nd, 2012
6:49 pm

RecentWreck…there is a difference between probation and “vacated wins”. He did not leave UMASS and Memphis with probation. Get your facts right.

bamaguy

March 22nd, 2012
7:19 pm

He recruits and runs his team by the rules set forth by the NBA. He plays the cards that are dealt him and produces consistent winners. I have no problem with that. Besides, Kentucky makes the SEC relevant in March.

Maximus

March 22nd, 2012
10:26 pm

Makes the $EC relevant in March….BWAHAHAHHAHAHA. Two final fours vacated…nuff said. The guy can coach and recruit but he is shady at best. I mean, it was never proven or fully revealed but he basically had his hands all over a substitute person taking Derrick Rose’s SAT.

Beast from the East

March 22nd, 2012
11:31 pm

Nice piece, Mark. I agree he’s a fine coach and a legendary recruiter. However, for all the talent he’s always put on the floor he’s never won it all. I’ll take Donovan over Cal. He’s proven he can build a program from dang near scratch and bring home the trophy. Plus, he doesn’t have the questions surrounding him.

Beast from the East

March 23rd, 2012
12:37 am

Gators in the Elite Eight!

Whopper Dawg

March 23rd, 2012
2:22 am

I am outside of Memphis regrettably, and worked close to UofM and Calipari’s house, so we used to see him in restaurants frequently and give him a shout out. Great guy, he would spend a little time with you.

Good program builder, you bet, good coach, you bet.

Unfortunately, you cannot look at his wake in terms of rules violations, vacating titles and honestly think he had nothing to do with it and had no knowledge. What would you think if Coach K had to vacate two final four runs?? Unthinkable.

He may have the team that gets him there this year, and I haven’t seen them play a minute. But typically his teams have a breakdown related to three point shooting, too much reliance on the 3 and poor decision making at critical moments. And all that points to fundamentals.

If Carolina’s PG guard can play and play well, I firmly believe they will win it.

Note that I listened to many Coach Cal’s interviews here in Memphis and here is one quote.

Q: Coach, your team has problems at the free throw line, are you working on that?
A: No, I don’t care how they do, we will just shoot another three.

I thought at the time, that will bite you in the tourney and it did when they lost to Kansas. But of course if they had won it, they would have vacated a national title so it it moot.

Whopper Dawg

March 23rd, 2012
2:24 am

Sorry should have said free throw shooting in the problem areas of the his teams rather than two references to 3s.

Charles

March 23rd, 2012
3:56 am

Nice Mark, champion and applaud a scumbag like Calipari who knows no bounds to cheating and in contrast you and your hack friends in the press conduct a grandiose game of character assassination on a good man like Jim Tressel, who but for one error in judgement won the right way, graduated players at a high level and achieved outstanding results on the field… typical media hacks… tell your friend George Dorhmann from SI … we are still trying to find the the other NINE players that got tatoos…

Coach

March 23rd, 2012
5:16 am

Yea, how about not fouling Kansas in the closing seconds of the NC game a few years ago…that was a classic coaching move. After the game Cal says “we did not have a chance to foul”. Yea right Cal, the ball was inbounded 94 feet from the basket and was dribbled the length of the floor and the kid was closely guarded by the Memphis player, then there was a dribble handoff/on ball screen, and the kid drills a three that puts the game in OT, and Kansas wins in OT. He may be a big winner but he is not the best coach. Heck as many McDonalds All-Americans as Cal has he ought to own McDonalds.

Larry

March 23rd, 2012
7:17 am

Amazing how some ignore obvious character flaws. When did Coaches Smith, Wooten, krzyzewski, Knight, Crum or even another “great recruiter but average coach” have not one, but two vacating of games?

Beast from the East

March 23rd, 2012
7:19 am

Charles,
With all due respect, Coach Tressel is a liar. That’s why his “character” is “assassinated” in the media.

Gator Mike

March 23rd, 2012
8:02 am

Calipari is a slime ball. I have always admired the UK BB Program from a distance because their football teams are usually not very good. Perhaps they are good in BB is because they are close to Indiana which has lousy football. Calipari has cheapened the UK tradition in BB.

Gatorhater

March 23rd, 2012
8:11 am

He’s a cheat and low-life. Kentucky will end up on probation sooner rather than later. Kentucky fans, enjoy it now, there will be a huge penalty to pay later!

Jockich Ahn Smelley, II

March 23rd, 2012
8:15 am

Basically, its a team with “one and done” well-paid future NBAers coached by a “Sleeze” versus a coach who has built a program left by a “Sleeze” with 4-year Players…..Hey If I’m a UKer, I know Im proud of the B-Ball Heritage…..Im sure Adolph Rupp is sooooo PROUD!!!!! You believe that, I’ve got some oceanfront land in coughhhhhhh NEVADA coughhhhhhhh to sell you!!!

[...] John Calipari is a big winner in dire need of a title [...]

Old School

March 23rd, 2012
8:40 am

I would love to see a Louisville/UK matchup, the Cards’ stifling defense against the Wildcat thoroughbreds. And oh yeah, that “other” coach named Pitino (10-0 now in sweet 16 games).

Georgia Tide Fan

March 23rd, 2012
8:49 am

Please, somebody, IU, Baylor, Xavier, please beat the Cayuts. I grew up in Kentucky. Never liked the Cayuts. Never will.

DawginLex

March 23rd, 2012
8:52 am

Kentucky’s coach has never left a team on probation
He did nothing to assist Camby or rose in their wrongdoings
The NCAA never implicated him(and believe you me, they tried).

He has taken a team that went to the NIT the year before he got there, overhauled the recruiting and taught these kids to be unselfish and play defense first.

He will win multiple titles at KY. Might not win this year, although I believe they will.

It is easy to take potshots at him at Kentucky. that is the accepted thing.

Bottom line: He does not care. His team will just beat your team over and over again.

If UNC and Kansas win tonight, 4 of the remaining teams will be teams that UK has already beaten, including Florida 3 times.

DawginLex

March 23rd, 2012
8:58 am

Smelley

Darius Miller-Senior
Terrence jones-Sophomore
Doron Lamb-sophomore

All with Final four experience from last year.

One and done’s??

Another uninformed hater

Gordon

March 23rd, 2012
9:00 am

Calipari’s 2008 title would have been vacated anyway. Imagine, there would have been no 2008 national champion.

Ted M

March 23rd, 2012
9:18 am

How much does John Calipari make as the highest paid coach?

Skeezix

March 23rd, 2012
9:24 am

The Big Winner? More like the Big Cheater. Ask Memphis. Or ask UMass.
No telling how many NCAA infractions at Ky. we will be reading about in 2-3 years . He runs a farm team for the NBA at Ky. taxpayers expense.

DawginLex

March 23rd, 2012
9:29 am

skeezix

There will be no infractions at UK.

The infractions at the other 2 schools were done by the players

Bob Knight choked his players and threw chairs

Calipari has 2 kids who cheated.

I see a big difference

DawginLex

March 23rd, 2012
9:31 am

The only reason Memphis is mad is because he left and they don’t win anymore

memphisdawg

March 23rd, 2012
10:35 am

Pastnor has more wins that Calipari at this point in his career as Memphis Coach and he inherited a far greater mess because Calipari used his last hours as Memphis coach to ‘legally’ persuade his recruits to follow him to Kentucky. While I am not saying Pastnor is as good a coach as Cal, I am saying know your facts and try not make yourself look like such a homer.
As for the players cheating. Maybe so, but are you saying Cal knew nothing about it? I believe where there is smoke there is fire.
With all that said, I don’t think the majority of Memphis fans would go back and hire someone different. Those teams were great, competed hard, and if not for a choke job on the sidelines and free throw line, they would have briefly brought this city a championship.

DawginLex

March 23rd, 2012
11:14 am

The kids followed Cal to Ky because they wanted to play for him and play at Kentucky. To say anything else is asinine

Do you really think he held their hand down and made them sign the LOI?

They wanted to play for him.

And again, show me where either school was on probation
Show me where the NCAA implicated him.
Show me any proof other than your belief that “where there is smoke there is fire”.

Two kids screwed up under his watch.

that is the truth

G8R GRAD

March 23rd, 2012
11:15 am

Seeya, Marquette!
NEXT!

Jeff in G-ville

March 23rd, 2012
11:42 am

Those of you saying Cal left Memphis with vacated victories but not probation are incorrect. Memphis received 3 years probation, though I don’t believe they lost any scholarships and weren’t banned from postseason play. They also had to pay back all revenue earned in the 2008 NCAA and CUSA tournaments. I lived in Memphis from 2007 – last year. It certainly was a fun time in Memphis when Cal was there, even though I’m not a Memphis fan. Game days were happening experiences. As much as Memphis fans hate him now, there’s no denying they loved him at the time.

heartofdarkness

March 23rd, 2012
11:55 am

In a way, Calipari reminds me of the 1950s professional wrestler who wore a mask. No “respectable” wrestler would wear a mask back then, but you would never fill an auditorium without that masked villain. Calipari is an essential element in the grafting of a professional entertainment onto an academic institution. That being said, he plays the NCAA game pretty well.
What would be interesting is a “Season on the Brink” look at the program, seeing how he navigates the agents, player retinues and parents of these momentum stocks in basketball shoes that come into the college game these days, and how he deals with faculties, administrators and conference officials hoping to avoid the career ending scandals. That would be the stuff of great entertainment.

reality Gator

March 23rd, 2012
12:10 pm

Mark Bradley: When the last time UGA won anything in basketball or football? Wikins and Walker about 30 years ago, this state should be the last one to take shots at any sports team””

KevinM

March 23rd, 2012
12:13 pm

DawginLex, again, you bring reality to this blog….thanks.

Hey MarkB, shouldn’t you know the highest paid coach is Pitino, by a landslide? Why isn’t he being questioned for his actions? If Pitino or any other coach could recruit one-and-dones like Cal can, you don’t think they would? Its a joke of a rule, and a guy who gets the rule is taking it to his advantage…what’s wrong with that?

Keep up the Cal articles so all the clueless can come out and spew on Cal.

WHAT????

March 23rd, 2012
12:47 pm

Mark Bradley you are a IDIOT. A lot of people know you are a UK alumn. What most people don’t know is you are a in the closet Loserville Tards fan.

Calipari is a cheater? Where is your proof? Last time I checked Calipari himself has had ZERO NCAA infractions against him. Unlike Pitino, Self, Williams, Izzo, etc… Yes even Coach K has had NCAA violations. At Memphis the NCAA ruled Rose eligible to play and then reversed their decesion after he had played. How’s that Calipari fault? Calipari did what every other coach in D1 basketball would have done and that is play him. Last time I checked Caipari was the one who turned Marcus Camby into the NCAA for dealing with a agent.

The one and done rule is awful. It’s not Calipari’s fault it’s the rule is that way. People hate because he is the best recruiter in the game and a lot better coach than he gets credit for. The season before Calipari came to Lexington UK played in the NIT. Calipari’s first year he took UK to the Elite Eight. That UK team lost 5 NBA 1st round draft picks!!!! Most schools would be rebiuilding after losing all that talent. Instead UK the next year made it to the Final Four.

That is all uninformed morons can say about Calipari is he’s a cheater. Get the facts right or give me proof that Calipari cheated. Until then keep spewing that hate.

BuckheadBill

March 23rd, 2012
1:02 pm

The coach at Young Harris College, Pete Herrmann, is the last coach to win at Rupp. Go Mountain Lions.

no class

March 23rd, 2012
1:18 pm

the only coach slimier in college basketball than Calipari is Petino who had to leave Ky for getting into some trouble there.

gdawginkalamazoo

March 23rd, 2012
1:29 pm

Congrats to the Gators on making it to the Elite 8. Great win last night.

I see the NBA as the problem with the one and dones. More power to Calipari if he can get the kids come play for him. I think the NBA should do away with the rule. IF the kid has the talent and an NBA team wants to take the chance on the kid then fine. Those kids are few and far between anyway.

Rodster

March 23rd, 2012
1:45 pm

Calipari is okay. He does what is within the rules. Nothing against him, the players or the school. But will love it when they lose so all their pompous, self-absorbed fans can go back to Lexington and whine about (take your pick) the officials, the venue, the recruiting at other teams, etc.

Robert Martin

March 23rd, 2012
1:53 pm

Mark,
I much enjoy your columns – look forward to reading them all. You seem to be struggling with your bracket picks, as I am. A fun article to read on this was in the Wall Street Journal recently – check it out if you haven’t read it – WSJ.com – The 23 Rules for Winning March Madness
Only people I know who are doing well have no knowledge of college basketball!
Robert Martin

kjlkjlkj

March 23rd, 2012
2:47 pm

I listen to the radio show of a national college basketball show primarily because of the insights into the world of recruiting, the AAU circuit, the ‘prep schools’ and the agents & runners. He says that every kid in the top 25 is on the take, & the coaches make sure they can never be tied to it. Recruiting at the highest levels is incredibly dirty. Assistants get thrown under the bus when something happens. So Calipari, just by having the most top-tier guys, is going to have by far the most sleaze around him. It will catch up to him sooner or later.

I give him credit for having his guys play defense extremely well. He does that as well as anyone. But there are definitely better Xs-and-Os coaches — Izzo, Huggins, Coach K.

Tech Man

March 23rd, 2012
2:54 pm

His kids go to Kentucky for one reason, the NBA. They hardly crack a book because by the time the academics catch them the season is over and they’re waiting for the draft. Basically, drop out of school. They could care less about school spirit, etc. How many of his players actually graduate?? Probably a few walk on players that sit on the bench, that’s it. His program is a disgrace to the student/athlete perception.

alex

March 23rd, 2012
3:09 pm

Garbage, ncaa basketball quality has declined and this coach rides the wave of one and dones,as stated he personifies what is wrong with ncaa sports: win at all costs,greed and narcissism.Attendence is down across the country…Wish his team would win, so he can retire

Sloan

March 23rd, 2012
4:11 pm

They are a lot of successful NCAA men’s basketball coaches that have a sleazy feel to them. Calipari just happens to be the most obvious one at the most obvious program right now. NCAA men’s basketball is mostly to blame, in my opinion, for what it has reaped. One year diaper divas “going to school” to audition for the NBA. Calipari is in a position at Kentucky to reload his roster each year with enough of these guys to be a contender for the final four year in and year out. The quality of the game, at both the NCAA and NBA levels, has been cheated the most as a result. Does anyone really believe that the golden age of basketball was not ushered in by Magic and Bird in 1979 while they battled for an NCAA championship and ushered out when Michael Jordan finally hung up his Air Jordan’s? By the time MJ exited the stage, the whole thing was in full deterioration mode. Can Calipari coach? Don’t know really since it’s hard to teach 18 year old kids a great deal in 6 months.

Nate

March 23rd, 2012
4:23 pm

@DawginLex – So you think it’s all just a coincidence that two programs Calipari coached and subsequently departed were found guilty of violations? Is it not a coach’s responsibility to know what goes on inside his program involving both players and coaches? Isn’t that what got Paterno fired and Jim Boeheim on the hot seat?

Let me ask you this, how many Final Fours have Duke, Michigan State, and North Carolina vacated in the time Calipari’s ex-schools have vacated two?

Nate

March 23rd, 2012
4:25 pm

@What???
“Mark Bradley you are a IDIOT. A lot of people know you are a UK alumn. What most people don’t know is you are a in the closet Loserville Tards fan.”

Sounds like you are the one spewing the hate hypocrite.