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