The critics say that John Calipari is all that is wrong at college basketball. And, in a way, they are right.
Calipari took Massachusetts and Memphis to the Final Four and both schools had to eventually vacate those appearances because of NCAA rules infractions. Though Calipari was found not to be directly involved any of the violations, the image persists that he is a slick operator who is always just a half-step ahead of the NCAA.
Yet those who know Calipari can't help but like him. He may be a bit of a rogue but he's a lovable one, much like Jerry Tarkanian was back in UNLV's heyday two decades ago.
Said one coach from a perennial power in a BCS conference, who asked not to be identified: "Despite it all, there's a real genuineness with Cal. If you talk to him for 10 minutes, you walk away feeling like he's your best friend in the entire world."
That helps make Calipari the best coach in the country when it comes to recruiting. He landed Marcus Camby at Massachusetts and Derrick Rose at Memphis, and both pushed mid-major programs to the Final Four. Calipari has spent two years in his first job at a power conference and freshmen have made a bigger impact at Kentucky than anywhere else in the nation each season.
His critics say recruiting is the only reason why Calipari is considered a premier coach, discounting the fact that he will be leading his third school in a Final Four on Saturday night when Kentucky (29-8) faces Connecticut (30-9) in a national semifinal of the NCAA Tournament at Houston. They say Calipari isn't a good game coach, pointing to how Memphis blew a late nine-point lead and lost in the national championship game to Kansas three seasons ago. They say Calipari is too loose with discipline, pointing to how Camby and Rose got their schools in trouble because of a lack of oversight.
If the slings and arrows bother Calipari, he never lets on. He just laughs when asked if another trip back to the Final Four validates his competency as a coach.
"I don't think you ever get validated in this profession because this is kind of like golf--you think you've got it figured out, you get humbled real quick," Calipari said. "This is a humbling profession. It's very, very hard. It can be very rewarding but it could also be one of those things when you really think I got it figured out and then you get slapped in the face."
Calipari doesn't have to think very far back to provide an example. Following a 77-76 overtime loss at Arkansas on Feb. 23, Kentucky fell to 19-8 overall but just 7-6 in the SEC. It appeared that the loss of its six leading scorers, including five first-round picks in the NBA Draft, from a team that went to the Elite Eight last season was too much for the Wildcats to overcome.
Yet Kentucky has won 11 straight games since that loss at Fayetteville and is in the Final Four for the first time since 1998. Calipari has to get credit for some of that turnaround despite having a talented roster.
"One of the reasons we lost six close games in our league is because I was trying to figure it out with my team," Calipari said. "We wanted to put it on individual players. It wasn't about our team. We didn't know how to finish off games because I hadn't figured out my team yet. As we went forward and started believing in each other, figuring out each other, how we're going to play, we got better."
UConn Streaking at Right Time
Connecticut seemed about as unlikely as any team from a power conference to get to the Final Four when the regular season ended. The Huskies limped into the Big East tournament having lost four of their previous five games.
However, Connecticut has gotten on one of the greatest March runs in recent memory. It won five games in five days to capture the Big East tournament, beating DePaul, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville. That got Connecticut a No. 3 seed in the West and now it is the highest remaining seed in the tournament after beating Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State and Arizona to reach the Final Four.
Connecticut's players point to two spirited practices in the three days between a loss to Notre Dame to end the regular season and the start of the Big East tournament.
"We played DePaul, and I didn't know what to expect after losing four out of five," sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi said. "Everybody's confidence was down. But we had two great practices before we went off to the Big East tournament and Coach (Jim Calhoun) said 'I'm not going to quit on you guys, I'm not going to let you quit.' We just got after it, and I think that changed everything."
Freshman guard Jeremy Lamb: "Coming into the Big East tournament one of our problems was energy. Sometimes we would have energy in practice and different stuff we do and then we couldn't carry it over to the game. I just tried to focus on trying to get my energy up. From there I didn't know how far we would go or what exactly would happen but I was just like, 'let's just play hard and at the end of the day I want to look in the mirror and say I played my hardest whether we win or lose.' We've just been playing hard and outworking other teams."
Calhoun believes the Huskies quit pressing after such a bad finish to the regular season and began playing looser.
"They had started to fall into trying to please too much and worrying about winning and losses where I always worry about playing well," Calhoun said. "If you play well, you win. If you don't play well, you lose and if you play not to lose you will definitely lose."
Connecticut is now playing with so much confidence that junior guard Kemba Walker believes the Huskies are the favorites to win it all in Houston. It would be their third national title in 12 years as they also won in 1999 and 2004.
Mid-Majors Meet in Houston
While Saturday's second semifinal faces two schools from power conference, the opener of the doubleheader at Reliant Stadium is an intriguing matchup between two mid-majors as Butler (27-9) faces Virginia Commonwealth (28-11).
"Who is going to be the underdog?" VCU coach Shaka Smart asked.
Butler has recent history on its side as it is the first mid-major to reach back-to-back Final Fours since UNLV in 1990 and 1991. The Bulldogs made it to the national championship game last season, losing by two points to Duke.
VCU, on the other hand, had never made it past the second round of the NCAAs until this year. In fact, the Rams were so unsure of their chances of getting into the tourney after a loss to Old Dominion in the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament dropped them to 23-11 that they did not have a team gathering to watch the selection show.
The NCAA selection committee was roundly criticized in some circles for picking VCU as an at-large team. Yet, the Rams have made it to the Final Four following victories over schools from five different power conferences: Southern California (Pac-10), Georgetown (Big East), Purdue (Big Ten), Florida State (ACC) and Kansas (Big 12).
"Those people don't matter," Smart said of the critics who felt team should have been NIT-bound. "The only people that matter is the 14 guys on our team, and they never stopped believing."
VCU barely got into the field of 68 and had to play in the First Four in Dayton as a No. 11 seed, where it beat USC. Should the Rams win it all, they would be the first team to win seven games in the tournament.
"Just another mountain to climb," guard Joey Rodriguez said. "Nobody's ever done it, so it's just another chance to make history."
Coaches on the Rise
The Butler-VCU game is also a matchup of coaches who have been very successful at an extremely young age. Smart is 33 and Stevens, at 34, is the youngest coach ever to reach two Final Fours.
Smart and Stevens are certain to be on the short list of majors looking for coaches, including Missouri, North Carolina State and Oklahoma. North Carolina State has reportedly suspended its search until next week so it can talk to Smart. While Smart is looked at in coaching circles as someone who will likely look to move up, many expect Stevens to remain at Butler as he signed a 12-year extension last spring and is an Indiana native.
"I've always believed if somebody wants you to be there, that's a pretty empowering thing," Stevens said. "Just really blessed to have that, and if it stays on 12 (years), it stays on 12, and if they want to go higher, they want to go higher. I'm just looking forward to coaching."
It certainly didn't hurt Butler that Matt Painter decided to stay at Purdue on Wednesday by turning down an offer from Missouri. Stevens would be a natural to take over the Boilermakers. However, Stevens has a close relationship with Butler athletic director Barry Collier, himself a former coach of the Bulldogs, and that can't be discounted.
"The unbelievable part of (the extension) was, there was no negotiating," Stevens said. "I walked in, I've got one of the best bosses in the world, and he just said, 'We appreciate the way that things are going in the program. We like the way that your guys are representing Butler on and off the court and this is what we think is the right thing for now.'"
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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