It’s easy to paint John Calipari as a villain in college basketball. His teams win a lot, he’s made it a point to amass more one-and-done talents than just about everyone and there’s still a number of fans who like to shout that his first two Final Four appearances at Memphis and UMass were both vacated.
At one point earlier this year, when Calipari was making a point about how much money his former players have made in the NBA, it’s hard not to see it as a Dr. Evil impression.
Everybody’s talking about Calipari’s supposed Duke shade when this is actually the best part of his presser pic.twitter.com/pgXQ6SgCa8
— Mark Armstrong (@ArmstrongABC11) January 22, 2018
And of course anytime Kentucky loses, just about everyone outside of Big Blue Nation takes great joy in the fact that Calipari is struggling. Earlier this season, when Calipari’s young team was in the midst of a rare four-game losing streak, a headline from a story written by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman asked, “Is this John Calapari’s most disappointing Kentucky team ever?” Given that losing streak, and the fact that Calipari’s top nine players consist of seven freshmen and two sophomores, some even jokingly wondered if Kentucky would make the NCAA Tournament.
But since their Feb. 14 loss to Auburn, the Wildcats have won eight of their last nine games, including sweeping through the SEC Tournament and avenging two early-season losses to Tennessee. The Wildcats are entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed and take on Davidson on Thursday (7:10 p.m. ET, CBS).
And while Calipari continues his usual antics, such as complaining about how tough Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament road is, some people are overlooking the fact that he has this incredibly young Kentucky team peaking at the right time.
“To a certain degree, Coach Cal’s coaching prowess is underappreciated because of the inevitable focus on Kentucky’s talent and the Cats’ one-and-done prospects — yet the reality is he’s molding winning teams as well as any program in college basketball,” Turner Sports NCAA analyst Steve Lavin said. “It’s very challenging to reload with new personnel every season and get that new group to consistently perform at a high level down the stretch to make deep NCAA Tournament runs.”
Peaking at the right time — March — is hardly a new thing for Calipari’s teams as they’ve won the last four SEC Tournaments. But when you factor in that he’s completely rebooting his team every season, it’s impressive. Meanwhile, consider that Duke, another team that prolifically recruits and plays one-and-done players, has won the ACC Tournament only once in the past seven years.
Calipari also has led Kentucky to four Final Fours. Arizona’s Sean Miller, who also has recruited a number of one-and-done players, has not been to one. The 2018 Final Four, which will be played Saturday, March 31, and the National Championship, which follows two days later on April 2, return to TBS this year, with corresponding TeamCast
Part of what makes Calipari so successful is that he’s shown an ability to adapt his coaching style to his personnel. While coaches such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim run the same scheme year after year, Calipari has shown a willingness to change the game plan to better fit his team’s strengths.
According to Lavin, who has over a decade of coaching experience at UCLA and St. John’s, Calipari’s stops at the lower college level and NBA have given him a wealth of experience that he may not have had if he stayed at one particular school for decades.
“He’s someone who continues to adapt and evolve as a coach, which indicates he’s a flexible thinker in his methodology and approach to coaching,” Lavin said. “He’s like a chef who is open to adding others recipes into his own cookbook.”
Of course, this 2018 bracket for Kentucky is hardly a breeze. In addition to a Tennessee team that has beaten the Wildcats twice, Kentucky also could meet up with the No. 1 team in the country in Virginia and then possibly Cincinnati, which has the No. 2 defense in the country.
But before all that, Kentucky and Calipari might have to take on Deandre Ayton and Arizona. Ayton is a projected top NBA draft prospect who is averaging 20.3 points per game, 11.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, and many, including Lavin, recognize that he is once-in-a-generation-type player who will be a handful for any team.
“In my view, Ayton is trending toward a generational player in the same manner Bill Russell, Oscar Robinson and Magic [Johnson] blazed trails in their respective eras,” Lavin said.
Kentucky also might be without talented big man Jarred Vanderbilt, who missed the SEC Tournament with a sprained ankle. But as Calipari has proven time and time again, he’ll have his team ready to play when they take the court on Thursday.