He Won’t Admit It, But Kentucky’s National Title is Calipari’s CoronationPosted by EJacoby on April 3rd, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
After the Kentucky Wildcats captured their program’s eighth National Championship with a 67-59 victory over Kansas on Monday night, an unfazed coach John Calipari sat at the postgame podium and deflected all attention away from himself. “This is about them. It’s not about me. [...] I can just coach now. I don’t have to worry. If you want to know the truth, it’s almost like – done, let me move on.” Sounding more relieved than excited, the coach claims that nothing will change about his mentality or coaching style now that he’s finally a national champion. Whether fans believe him or not is up to them, but one thing remains clear: John Calipari has now elevated to the top step in college basketball coaching. As he tries to not make the victory about himself, we can take a moment to reflect on the significance of the 2012 National Championship and what it means for Calipari.
With the national title now under his belt, Calipari has validated everything he worked for in choosing to leave Memphis for Kentucky and recruiting the one-and-done type of players whom he encourages to leave for the NBA as soon as they’re ready. Cal still has his haters and doubters, such as this AP sports writer who can’t buy into the coach’s recruiting tactics. But those who watch the games understand that you don’t win national titles by letting top recruits play free-form basketball. There’s a reason why hoops is a thinking man’s game filled with elite athletes but only the most well-adjusted players succeed at the highest level. When Anthony Davis shoots 1-10 from the field and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t score a single point in the second half, they still have enormous impacts on the game because of their defensive prowess, how hard they play, and buy-in to the team game plan. It’s not easy to get 18- and 19-year-olds to reach their basketball potential in less than a year at a program, but Calipari got it done with this group in a big way.
Calipari is right that the most significant impact of this title is that the pressure is lifted from his shoulders. “I don’t have to worry,” he says, pointing to the fact that he doesn’t ever have to be addressed anymore as a coach that’s never been able to win the big one. But where he’s wrong are in his sentiments that it’s not about him. Certainly, Davis, Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and company were responsible for the the 38 victories this season, but it’s Calipari who has effectively carried out a scheme that was dominant from day one in a way that few thought was possible. Sure, the 2003 Syracuse Orange had a similar roster structure as national champs with two freshmen leading the scoring load, but even that team was a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rode a hot run to the national title. The 2012 Wildcats were preseason #2 in the country and spent the entire season in the top three of the polls. Kentucky was rewarded with the #1 overall seed in the Big Dance and the Wildcats were never in serious jeopardy of losing throughout the entire NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky won the 2012 title without a single starting player over the age of 20. The fact that all five starters were All-American high school players and consensus Top 25 recruits in their class should only reinforce the idea that Calipari did such a fantastic job with this team. Not only has he brought in the number one recruiting class for three offseasons in a row, but he turned this group of players into one of the most dominant teams in recent history with their play on the court. What’s better than a coach who brings in the best players and then also develops them to become immediate stars? The only way to detract from these results would be evidence of foul recruiting methods, and there have been no such violations for UK. Calipari is bringing in the perfect combination of recruiting and coaching in a way that we haven’t seen done in the past 10 to 15 years of college basketball.
From here, there’s no reason to expect any drop-off in Kentucky’s play in the immediate future. As long as Calipari stays put in Lexington and the Wildcats continue to promote a fun and successful basketball environment, Kentucky is going to be the number one destination for many top high school recruits. The Wildcats already have a top-five recruiting class in store for next season, and the top seven (!) undeclared players in high school basketball ALL have UK on their final lists. That group includes the top two overall players in Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammed. We’ll soon find out the final decisions of these top players, but you should certainly not be surprised if they choose to play for Kentucky because of John Calipari. Given the culture of success that he’s built in Lexington, why wouldn’t they?
College basketball, with over 340 teams in Division I, is far too large and competitive to even consider the idea of Kentucky building a “dynasty.” The 68-team NCAA Tournament is incredibly difficult to win, as witnessed by the fact that two of the top eight teams in America didn’t win a single game in this year’s Big Dance. But the current state of Kentucky basketball is in such a good place that it’s not unreasonable to think about UK as the title favorites again next year, depending on how many top players come in to replace the expected departures of Davis, Gilchrist, Jones, et al. Big Blue Nation has John Calipari to thank for it, and there’s no reason now not to embrace the coach as the new standard-bearer of excellence in college basketball.