Saturday, January 20, 2018

Kentucky coach John Calipari gets long-awaited national title


Savior. Scoundrel. Salesman.

Over his career, John Calipari has been called a thousand things, some of them flattering and some of them foul. He is a man who has coached from the shady areas of college basketball, his critics say, and now, he has led a team to the spotlight.

Hero. Villain. Baby-sitter.

And now he was headed toward the trophy stand, and it didn't matter a bit what anyone had ever said. After all of the great teams, and all of the great regular seasons, Calipari had led a team to a title, and his legacy had been changed forever.

Conqueror. Survivor. Champion.

Say what you will about Calipari, and a great many people will. He is the most polarizing figure in college basketball, maybe in sports. There are those who revere him and those who revile him and those who believe in his results and those who doubt the way they were achieved. There are those who talk about his Final Four appearances, and those who point out that two of them have been vacated by the NCAA.

Given all of that, you could imagine the nationwide reaction as he gripped the championship trophy after Monday night's 67-59 victory over the Kansas Jayhawks. The man in the blue tie had won a title.

This championship was not about him, Calipari will tell you, but of course it was. Yes, most of this trophy was for his team, that fabulous collection of talent that had the grace to stop by the Kentucky campus on its way to the NBA. And yes, some of it was for the passionate Kentucky fans, the ones who have been waiting for 14 years to add their eighth national title.

But, yeah, this was for Calipari, too. If winning wasn't important, they wouldn't have scoreboards, and if titles weren't important, they wouldn't have resumes, and if trophies weren't so cool, the rest of college basketball wouldn't feel so much envy.

"I'm glad it's done,'' Calipari said. "Now I can get back to my job of coaching basketball. I don't have to hear the drama.''

You don't come as close as Calipari has without feeling a bit of pride in an accomplishment such as this. You don't watch as the NCAA takes an eraser to two of your team's Final Four appearances (Calipari was not implicated) without savoring the moment. Put it this way: Don't you think this championship will come up when it is time to discuss a contract extension?

Frankly, Calipari should be proud of this team and this bunch of Rugrats he guided toward a title. The Wildcats are brilliantly talented, and if they decided to stay in college, it's possible they could make a run at best-team-ever status.

But coaching kids of this age is a high-wire act. Calipari threw a bunch of talented freshmen and sophomore into a locker room, and he convinced them to play hard, and to play defense, and to play unselfish, and to play with poise. There aren't a lot of other coaches who could pull that off.

Consider the second half of Monday night's game, when his kids kept wanting to run, and Calipari slowed them down to work the clock.

"In the second half I pulled the reins back," Calipari said. "They were saying 'Let us go, let us go.' We were trying to get out of this gym alive."

At times in the first half, it appeared the Wildcats were going to run off and hide, building an 18-point lead even though player of the year Anthony Davis was scoreless. But Kansas was in the title game for a reason, too, and part of that was an inborn stubbornness and a knack for charging from behind.

And so the Jayhawks whittled the lead to five with 71 seconds to play, and again, they reminded you of how they snatched the trophy out of the hands of Calipari's Memphis team back in 2008.

This Kentucky team, however, has more poise, and better free-throw shooters, than that Memphis team. It wasn't always smooth highway, but the Wildcats managed to hang on.

Ah, but can't you imagine what it is like for Kentucky fans this morning? In those long stretches between titles, something seems a little off when the Wildcats are not collecting titles. There was 20 years between the school's fourth time and its fifth, and 18 between its fifth and its sixth, and now 14 between its seventh and its eighth.

That's why this title is about Calipari, too. As long as he resists the NBA, as long as he can keep landing freshmen like Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Wildcats are going to keep winning. This time, there does not figure to be more than a decade of waiting.

So go ahead. Grouse about the one-and-dones. Talk about Calipari. But get used to the image of the Wildcats running past their opponents. Calipari has won 135 games in his last three years, and if you count the 38 wins that were vacated in '08, he has won 239 over the last seven.

For now, college basketball is in Calipari's hands.

The trophy, too.

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