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Calipari The Best “Manager” In The Game

Kentucky’s John Calipari might not be the best coach in the land, but he is the best manager.

What’s the difference?

This writer grew up following the Atlanta Braves.  Dating back to his first run with the Braves, Bobby Cox has always had my respect.  I just didn’t want him in the dugout in a seven-game series or a final winner-take-all game.

Cox’s tendency to go against “the book” bit him often in big games, in big series.  For a fan, that was incredibly frustrating. 

But Cox also — more times than not — had his team in position to be in big games and big series at the end of one grueling 162-game schedule after another.  When it came to pushing the right buttons, managing personalities in the clubhouse, and developing a team over the long haul, no one was better than Cox.  There’s a reason he’ll be in Cooperstown.

Calipari is comparable to Cox.  And before Kentucky fans start sending the angry emails, just think back to what you yourselves were saying this time last year after UK had fallen to Bob Huggins (again) and his 1-3-1 zone.  “Where were the adjustments?”  “Why did they keep jacking up threes?”  “Why didn’t Calipari settle his guys?”

And remember, last June the big question in the sports world was: How could a UK team featuring five NBA first-round draft picks not have made the Final Four?

Well Calipari has repaired his reputation in this year’s tournament by vanquishing his old nemesis Huggins, upsetting Thad Matta’s far more dominant Ohio State squad, and then slipping by Roy Williams’ Tar Heels in the Elite Eight.  That’s great coaching.

But once again, it’s Calipari’s management that has been the most impressive aspect of Kentucky’s season.

No coach in the country does a better job of collecting NBA-caliber talent.  And no coach in the country does a better job of getting his young stars to do two things young stars don’t often do: play defense and play selflessly.

This UK team — with fewer stars than last year’s squad — has improved as the season has worn on.  In a stretch from mid-January to mid-February this bunch was just 5-5 in SEC play.  Kentucky lost six out of seven league road games at one point.  Terrence Jones was accused of being selfish.  DeAndre Liggins hadn’t figured out his role.  Josh Harrellson was best known for being Billy Gillispee’s whipping boy.  And Brandon Knight was still growing up.

But UK has gone 12-1 since that 5-5 stretch.  They captured the #2 seed in the SEC East and then rolled through the league tournament to capture yet another conference crown.  After being handed a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they continued to slice through the bracket like Knight driving to a bucket.  Jones has been more a team player.  Liggins has become a complete threat, leading UK to a win over UNC with his defense and a late three-pointer.  Harrellson has become one of the tourney’s feel-good stories and Knight has most definitely grown up.

All under Calipari’s tutelage.

There will always be questions about Calipari’s ability as a bench coach.  Anyone with as many career wins as UK’s coach is bound to be critiqued and broken down.  Faults will be found.

But when it comes to managing a team, its players, its personalities, and its chemistry, no one does a better job than Calipari.  This year’s Cats prove that.

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