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Calipari Reveals “Tweak” That Aided Kentucky In The Big Dance

gfx-they-said-it4As Kentucky limped into the SEC Tournament with 9 losses and a 1-3 record in its last four regular-season games, John Calipari announced that he’d come up with a “tweak” that would hopefully change the Wildcats’ fortunes in the postseason.  The tweak worked, apparently.  The Cats made it to the SEC tourney final before losing to Florida by a point.  Then they won five straight in the NCAA Tournament before falling to UConn in the national title game.

So what was Calipari’s tweak?  UK’s coach appeared on “CBS This Morning” earlier today.  As CollegeBasketballTalk.com points out, he there revealed that the tweak was actually a simple request that point guard Andrew Harrison pass the ball more and shoot the ball less:

 

“I showed Andrew (tapes of NBA point guard Deron Williams).  I said, ‘Look at this, let’s watch.  Would you have passed or shot?’  He said, ‘I would have shot.’  Would you have or shot?  Well, Deron was throwing ball to everybody.

And so, I said, ‘Monday, you will not shoot one basketball.  You will pass, we’re gonna run these plays, you will create shots.  We will chart; we’re not telling our team.’  He comes in, he has 26 assists attempts, 21 assists that Monday, I’m mad the whole practice because it changed our team.  Why didn’t I do it earlier?  And then I apologized to him.  I apologized to the team and I said, ‘I screwed this up, make me look good now.’”

 

Now, you know very well that a light bulb didn’t suddenly come on for Calipari.  You can be sure he tried to coax Harrison into shooting less and passing more for much of the season, not just at tourney time.  But Calipari’s handling of the situation — the tournaments give us a new chance to adjust, we’ve struggled not because of you but because of me, etc — was perfect.

Kentucky’s coach is often saddled with the tag of “great recruiter, so-so coach.”  Heck, as his team kept dropping regular-season games this year there were plenty of Big Blue fans who made that exact point on messageboards, Twitter and talk radio.  But the reality is Calipari has been able to make deep tournament runs with freshmen-heavy teams in four of his five seasons in Lexington.  That takes a good coach.  And whether it’s on the court or playing a few mind games with his team off it, Calipari has proven himself to be a very, very good coach.

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Kentucky Falls Just Short Of National Crown & Other Basketball Notes (Part 2)

BioIBjOCEAABT9ZThe three SEC squads that did make this year’s NCAA Tournament each had a nice run.  Tennessee reached the Sweet Sixteen and was three missed free throws away from making the Midwest Regional final and SEC versus SEC showdown.  Kentucky went on to win that regional and advance all the way to the national title game before finally running out of steam.  And on the other side of the bracket, Florida cruised all the way to the Final Four before falling to eventual national champ, UConn.

Will that success lead next year’s NCAA Tournament selection committee to send the SEC a few more invitations to the Big Dance?  Probably not.

Hey, in theory, impressing in this year’s tourney could sway next year’s panel when it comes to SEC teams on the bubble.  But the committee doesn’t often take last year’s success/failure into account when doling out at-large bids.  First example: After winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, Florida’s bubble was popped two years in a row sending the Gators to the NIT.  In 2012, Kentucky won the national title.  In 2013, UK was given a thumbs-down on Selection Sunday, dropping them into the NIT.  One year’s success or failure doesn’t have much impact on who the committee picks and doesn’t pick for its tournament the following year.

On the flipside, perhaps the tournament runs by UF, UK and UT will have a positive impact on the SEC’s overall conference RPI ranking.  That might not guarantee more bids in 2015, but it couldn’t hurt.

 

Early top 25 rankings look awfully familiar

Will the SEC be better next season?  Not in the eyes of a couple of national hoops writers.  ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan posted an early top 25 preview for next season.  He has Kentucky — with a new batch of highly-touted freshmen — ranked #3 in the nation and Florida ranked #8.  That’s it.  Two ranked teams.  He does mention Tennessee among his group of 15 teams that “may crack the list at some point before November.”

Meanwhile, Rob Dauster of NBC and College Basketball Talk has posted his own early top 25 rankings.  Kentucky is ranked #5.  Florida is ranked #14.  And that’s it.  No other Southeastern Conference squad earns a mention from Dauster.

 

UConn’s basketball success doesn’t mean much in a football-crazed culture

Connecticut’s men’s basketball team has won four national championships in 16 seasons.  Over that same span the UConn women’s team has won seven national crowns and will be playing for their eighth tonight.  If there’s a D-I campus where basketball is king, it’s the one in Storrs, Connecticut.

And that fact hasn’t helped the Huskies one bit in terms of conference affiliation opportunities.

UConn has campaigned try and gain inclusion in the ACC.  No dice.  Boston College wants to be the New England team in John Swofford’s conference.  For that reason, Louisville — hardly a team located on the Atlantic Coast — got the nod to replace Maryland over UConn and others.

Connecticut hasn’t had much luck talking their way into the Big Ten, either.  UConn lacks the resume — meaning a membership in the Association of American Universities — for which Jim Delany’s league lusts.  Maryland and Rutgers received Big Ten invitations instead.

Conference expansion/realignment has been driven by just about every factor out there except basketball.  And that’s a shame for Connecticut because UConn is fast becoming Basketball U with both its men’s and women’s teams.

 

What would a big game be without a few couch fires

Pity the poor, innocent couches.  It’s become commonplace in recent years for college students to burn couches after big losses (Ohio State).  They also light ‘em up after big wins (West Virginia).  Mostly they just burn them when they’re feeling good and liquored up, regardless of a big game’s outcome.  Last night, Kentuckians got in on the act.

According to The Lexington Herald Leader, there were 19 couch fires, several small trash fires, 31 arrests, and 23 injuries after Connecticut topped Kentucky 60-54.  It was a disappointing, immature reaction that’s made news all across the web, the nation and the world.

There are worse things, however.  Like being stuck with a tattoo bearing the words “2014 National Champions” above the UK logo.  For the record, Tyler Austin Black says he’s going to keep the tattoo.

Betcha he has some work done to cover up the “2014″ at least.

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Kentucky Falls Just Short Of National Crown & Other Basketball Notes (Part 1)

Kentucky-DejectedConnecticut’s 60-54 win in last night’s NCAA Tournament final accomplished two things.  First, it gave the Huskies their fourth national championship since 1999.  That’s two more titles than Duke, Florida and North Carolina won over that stretch and three more than champs Michigan State, Maryland, Syracuse, Kentucky and Louisville.  If there’s a dominant program in the land right now, it’s Connecticut.

Second, the UConn win blocked John Calipari’s trip to the winners’ circle.  Kentucky won the national crown in 2012 and was aiming for its second title in three years.  Instead, Wildcat fans will have to “settle” for this remarkable run of success for Coach Cal and his youth-driven program: one national championship, one NCAA tourney runner-up, one Final Four loss, one Elite Eight loss and one NIT trip.  That’s one championship banner, three Final Fours, and four Elite Eights in five years.  If there’s a UK fan out there who feels the need to complain about the Cats’ coach, he’s probably sipped a tad too much Kentucky bourbon.

 

Live by the guards, die by the guards

Over the course of UK’s last nine games, Aaron and Andrew Harrison elevated their play.  No wonder then that a UK squad that went 22-9 (.709 winning percentage) in the regular season went 7-2 (.777) in tournament play.  The Wildcats’ only two losses were to Florida (who reached the Final Four) in the SEC Tournament finals and to UConn in last night’s tourney finals.

On Monday night, the 6-6 Harrison twins were outplayed by their small UConn counterparts, Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier.  Kentucky’s guards scored 15 points on six-of-15 shooting, put up five assists and turned the ball over seven times.

Boatright and Napier, on the other hand, combined for 36 points on 13-of-22 shooting with six assists and seven turnovers.  Boatright is a 6-0.  Napier is a 6-1.  In last night’s game, speed and quickness got the better of the size and strength.

 

Calipari downplays rumored tie to the Los Angeles Lakers

Former Kentucky star Rex Chapman didn’t make any new friends in the Bluegrass State last night.  A little less two hours before game time, Chapman tweeted about a rumor he’d heard — one would think — in NBA circles:

 

tweet one

 

After getting e-flogged on Twitter, Chapman returned to say: “I don’t live in some dream world & have alwys called it straight.”  He also posted this zinger: “Let’s not 4get, 6-wks ago many in BBN would’ve walked Cal 2 LA.”  True, plenty in the Big Blue Nation were calling for Calipari’s head as his teams slogged its way through a regular season that didn’t live up to preseason hype.

After the game, Calipari said that his team was unaware of the tweet before the game, so no one can blame Chapman for Monday’s loss.  It was still clear the coach wasn’t happy with the rumor being passed around when he said: “The Lakers have a coach.  Kentucky has a basketball coach.  I got the best job in the country.  I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.”  That’s two statements of fact, one opinion, and a non-denial denial.  (Just found a Dan Wetzel piece that shows that writer viewed Calipari’s statement in almost the exact same way we did.)

UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart never gave a specific “He’ll be back” after the game, either.  According to SI.com, Barnhart said:

 

“Cal’s been great, he’s been a great ambassador for this program and he cares a lot about Kentucky.  So clearly we love how he represents what we do.  He looks great in blue.  You live day to day with people and you trust what they do.  For five years now, I think I know him fairly well.  If there was anything I need to concerned with, he and I have had conversations, and in those conversations he’s been very, very focused on this tournament.  His total focus this season, especially this last month and a half, have been to get the team to a spot where we could compete for something like this.  I think he’s done a marvelous job doing that.”

 

He has.  But that, too, is a non-denial denial.

Do we believe Calipari will head to the Lakers or another NBA team this offseason?  No.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect time for UK’s coach to play a little footsie with some pro franchise in order to remind Kentucky fans to appreciate what he and his teams are achieving.

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A Cliche About Kentucky’s Hoops Team That Needs To Be Retired

tina-fey-eye-rollI’m not sure how many times I’ve heard this one since Kentucky bounced Wisconsin from the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.  Ten times?  Twenty?  Thirty?

“Well, they’re not freshmen anymore,” says Fan X, Guest Analyst Y, or Show Host Z.  Yeah, OK.  I get the point.  Kentucky’s kids have played 39 games to date so they’re no longer completely green.

But here’s why that stock phrase needs to be retired — The sophomores of the world are not sophomores, either.

Yes, John Calipari’s freshmen have gained experience, but they still have less experience than the sophomores, juniors and seniors they face on a nightly basis.  That fact, in effect, does mean they should be designated as having less experience and the word “freshman” covers that ground quite nicely.

Kentucky’s run to tonight’s championship game with Connecticut has required late-game heroics and last-second shots time and again.  It just might be that their youthful outlook — their lack of experience — has helped them advance.  They seem unfazed by pressure… perhaps because they’re too green to worry.

So let’s all please nix the “they’re no longer freshmen” cliche.  Even 39 games into the season, UK’s freshmen still have less experience than several key UConn players they’ll face tonight — senior Shabazz Napier, juniors Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, etc.  That’s no knock.  It’s just a fact.

A fact that makes Calibari’s work with his latest bunch of youngsters pretty damn impressive.

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Florida Vies To Pass Kentucky In Recent SEC Hoops Supremacy

florida-dunk-over-kentucky-2014Eighteen years ago, Kentucky basketball was sitting atop its traditional perch looking down the rest of the Southeastern Conference.  Rick Pitino would lead his final Wildcats team to the NCAA Tournament finals.  Tubby Smith would replace Pitino and win UK the national crown a season later.  The two combined for 70 wins in those crossover seasons.

But down in Gainesville, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had just made a move that would alter the course of SEC basketball for nearly two decades.  He hired a young coach named Billy Donovan.  The former Pitino player and assistant had served just two years as head coach at Marshall before Foley tabbed him to replace Lon Kruger.  Donovan’s record at the West Virginia school was 35-20.  After struggling in his first two years in the Sunshine State, Donovan’s career mark stood at just 62-52.  At that point, few would have guessed that he would be the man to challenge Kentucky’s long-held dominance in the Southeastern Conference.

In many ways, this year’s Final Four — if won by UF or UK — could serve as a sort of rubber match between the two dominant hoops programs.  The numbers including Donovan’s first two rebuilding years also include the final heights of Pitino and Smith at Kentucky.  Take those first two rebuilding seasons out of the mix and Florida has arguably been the SEC’s best basketball program over the last 16 seasons.

Below is a comparison of the programs including the 1996-1997 and 1997-98 seasons:

 

1996-97 through 2013-14

  Category   Florida   Kentucky
  Seasons   18   18
  30-Win Seasons   3   4
  20-Win Seasons   16   17
  NCAA Trips   14   16
  NIT Trips   3   2
  NCAA Titles   2   2
  NCAA Final Fours   4   5
  NCAA Elite Eights   7   7
  NCAA Sweet Sixteens   8   9
  SEC Championships   6   7
  SEC Tourney Championships   4   8
  Overall Winning Pct.   .728   .757

 

While Florida has put up a nice challenge to the Wildcats over that span, UK still retains the crown when you include the end of Pitino and the start of Smith.  While Donovan was rebuilding (27-32 his first two years with the Gators), UK was going 35-5 and 35-4, reaching the NCAA title game twice, and claiming one championship banner.

But how does the story read since Donovan got his program up and running?  Below are the accomplishments of Florida and Kentucky from the 1998-99 season forward:

 

1998-99 through 2013-14

  Category   Florida   Kentucky
  Seasons   16   16
  30-Win Seasons   3   2
  20-Win Seasons   16   15
  NCAA Trips   14   14
  NIT Trips   2   2
  NCAA Titles   2   1
  NCAA Final Fours   4   3
  NCAA Elite Eights   7   7
  NCAA Sweet Sixteens   8   9
  SEC Championships   6   6
  SEC Tourney Championships   4   6
  Overall Winning Pct.   .757   .746

 

While not a complete flip-flop, Florida does hold what we consider to be a slight advantage over Kentucky since 1998-98.  Looking back 16 years instead of 18, Donovan’s two worst years are taken out of the mix.  Also gone are two of UK’s best years.

It also must be noted that while Donovan has been the only man in charge of the Gators during the past 18 seasons, the Wildcats have had four bosses: Pitino, Smith, Billy Gillespie and John Calipari.  Advantage: Florida on the stability front.  However, at his current pace, it appears Calipari is going to have Kentucky flying at high altitudes — right along with Florida — for as long as he remains in Lexington.

This year’s Final Four could result in a third national crown for Florida (over 16 or 18 seasons).  Looking at it only since Donovan built up UF, that would give the Gators a three-to-one advantage in NCAA hardware since 1998-99.  A national title for Kentucky would even the two schools with two crowns apiece since Donovan turned Florida into a national power.

It’s possible, of course, that neither Florida nor Kentucky will win this season’s national title.  Here’s hoping one or the other does cut down the nets in North Texas.  If for no other reason than to further spice up the debate as to whether or not the Gators have surpassed the Wildcats when it comes to recent SEC hoops supremacy.

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Calipari’s Kentucky Team Didn’t Give Up On Season Despite “Disappointments”

NCAA BASKETBALL: APR 01 New Kentucky Basketball Coach John CalipariWhen the word “undefeated” gets batted around and you then go 24-10, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

When you’re picked as a preseason #1 and you then go 24-10, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

When you’re expected to rebound from an NIT finish the previous year and you then go 24-10, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

Anytime you go 24-10 at Kentucky, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

You get the drift.  For many/most Kentucky fans, 2013-14 was a disappointment.  High expectations gave way to more “John Calipari can’t coach; he can only recruit” talk within the Big Blue fanbase.  Two NCAA Tournament wins — including a win over a Wichita State squad that actually was undefeated — have pushed the Wildcats’ record to 26-10 and propelled UK back into the Sweet 16.  Tonight, they face defending champ and cross-state rival Louisville in Indianapolis for the right to move on to the Elite Eight.

If Kentucky wins, it will be the school’s fourth Elite Eight in five years under Calipari.  Some disappointment.

In Lexington — as is the case in Durham, Chapel Hill, Bloomington, and Lawrence — the expectations are consistently high.  As in Willie Nelson high.  Very, very high.  In five seasons, Calipari has already reached three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, won one national title — is that all? — and won more than 80% of his games.  Those are some pretty remarkable accomplishments considering the fact that Coach Cal basically starts from scratch with a new batch of freshmen starters every single season.

Still, this year has been viewed as a let-down in the Commonwealth.  Calipari doesn’t see it that way.  ”Every game we lost was like a two-point, three-point game,” he said yesterday.  While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, his point is sound — UK was in most of its losses until late in those contests.  Then came a change prior to the SEC Tournament:

 

“We accepted roles… A lot of this was on me.  We hadn’t really defined roles, because we hadn’t really figured each other out.  And I wasn’t very specific on how we had to play.”

 

Nice of the coach to say, but you can be sure he’s taking on more than his fair share of the blame in order to protect his players.

Aside from Kentucky fans might have overinflated expectations year in and year out, there’s another lesson to be learned here — Don’t give up on a season before its actually finished.  As appears to have happened with Kentucky, it’s never too late for redemption in basketball.  Reach the NCAAs and all bets are off.

But don’t take our word for it.  Just check out the turnarounds of some of the other squads still dribbling this late in the season:

 

* Virginia lost four non-conference games before smoking through the ACC with a 16-2 mark.

* Wisconsin is already through to the Elite Eight despite a 4-5 start to its Big Ten slate.

* Down the road at Tennessee, the Vols have won eight of nine since finding themselves 15-11 on February 22nd.

* Michigan State went just 5-7 from January 25th through the end of the regular season.

* Iowa State opened Big 12 play 3-4.

* Dayton’s start to the season was 13-8.  They’ve gone 13-2 since and punched their ticket to the Elite Eight last night.

 

Calipari and his team weren’t the greatest team ever assembled as some had hoped/prayed/demanded.  So be it.  But the Wildcats’ season didn’t end in February, either.  There were still chapters to be written which meant all the moaning and groaning in the Bluegrass State was premature.

If Kentucky wins tonight, much more will be forgiven.  If UK loses — to hated Louisville — the grumbles will start anew.  But the reality is this: UK will have reached the Sweet 16 and knocked off an unbeaten top-five team to get there.  Couple that with Calipari’s prior accomplishments in Lexington and its ridiculous for anyone to put the word “disappointment” beside his name or beside his squad’s team photo.

In fact, the only people to be disappointed in are the nitwits who looked at a team expected to start four or five freshman and said, “Yep, they can go undefeated.”

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3 SEC Teams Still Alive In The NCAAs? Sweet, But The League Still Stunk

pondering-300x199Kudos to the Southeastern Conference teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament.  Three teams in the tourney, all three still dancing their way into the Sweet Sixteen.  Hard to complain about that showing.  In fact, it’s tempting to say that the SEC was underrated this season.

But it wasn’t.  The league as a whole was still pretty darn bad.

In 2013-14 the SEC had one great team (Florida) and two pretty good teams that have gotten hot at the right time (Kentucky and Tennessee).  Five teams (Alabama, Vanderbilt, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State) finished the season with losing records overall.  That’s eight teams, so how did the other six SEC squads out of the NCAA Tournament but boasting winning records do against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee?

 

Arkansas 2-2

Texas A&M 2-2

LSU 1-4

Missouri 1-4

Georgia 0-4

Ole Miss 0-4

 

That’s a combined 6-20 versus the three squads that received NCAA bids.  Mix that in with the five squads that finished with losing records, toss in several ugly non-conference losses across the league, and it’s easy to see why NCAA selection panelists frowned upon the SEC this season.

Having said that, it is certainly possible that the NCAA selection committee underseeded Kentucky and Tennessee due to their bad home league.  The Wildcats should have probably been a five or six seed based on their record and RPI.  And teams with Tennessee’s selection Sunday RPI have been seeded as high as seven and nine in recent years.  So we’ll give you that that much was botched.

But we were referring to the SEC as a three-bid league as far back as December.  We see no need for revision now.  No other SEC teams can legitimately claim that they did enough to earn an NCAA bid.

Now a few other random notes…

 

*  The SEC will get a fatter chunk of cash for this tourney because three teams have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen round.  Repeatedly getting three teams into the tourney has cut down on the earning power of the league.  But with every game won, the SEC receives a bigger slice of the tournament revenue pie.  Mike Slive’s league is wealthy to begin with, but the more money the better.  Obviously.

*  Might the SEC’s performance this year help during the tournament selection process next year?  Well, it certainly can’t hurt.  The league has developed a reputation over the past few years for being a bad basketball league.  It was ranked 7th among conferences in RPI this year.  The SEC went so far as to put a new czar in charge of hoops prior to the season in the hopes of gradually building the league back into a five- and six-bid conference.  That will take time.  Having national pundits point to the fact that three SEC teams are still playing in the NCAA tourney will help on the national perception front.  But as far as invitations in 2015?  The selection committee has a history of looking only at the current year’s numbers, not past years’ successes.  Ask Kentucky fans.  Last season the defending national champs had their bubble popped and were shipped to the NIT.  So national perception — yes, this helps.  Tournament selection in the future — it might not make a bit of difference.

*  I can think of two SEC coaches who might like to tell a few of their teams’ fans to stick it right about now.  John Calipari’s first four years in Lexington resulted in three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, a national title and — uh-oh — an NIT bid.  This year his kindergarten Cats “stumbled” to a 26-10 record.  Talk shows and messageboards and social media heated up.  Coach Cal was taking plenty of guff.  ”How can a guy with so much talent not win?”  But basketball seasons are long and winding roads, to paraphrase The Beatles.  UK has won five of its last seven with the only losses coming to top-ranked Florida.  After knocking off previously unbeaten Wichita State yesterday, UK has a date with Louisville this week for the right to play in yet another Elite Eight.  It’s interesting that the Calipari-to-the-NBA rumors started floating earlier than normal this season.  One wonders if UK’s coach has grown tired of the “#1 or bust” attitude of many spoiled Kentucky fans.  Or if he or someone close to him leaked such information just to remind Big Blue fans that they’d better appreciate him and his program’s current run of success.

*  Cuonzo Martin has had it worse than Calipari.  Three years ago he took over a Tennessee program that no one else wanted.  NCAA clouds left overhead by the Bruce Pearl administration were ominous and spooky.  In his first season he managed to coach a UT team picked near the bottom of the SEC into a second-place league finish.  His second team wound up on the wrong side of the bubble, but the Vols were still in the mix despite losing preseason All-SEC big man Jeronne Maymon for the year.  This year, UT was picked for third place in the SEC.  They finished fourth by one game.  Fans barked for Martin’s head.  More than 30,000 signed a petition to bring Pearl back.  AD Dave Hart was so torn that had Martin not gotten an NCAA bid eight days ago he might have been fired.  But Tennessee has now won eight of its last nine games with the only loss coming to Florida.  Most of those wins have been of the blowout variety.  UT is now 3-0 in the NCAAs and suddenly Martin has leverage.  While Calipari might be able to jump to the NBA, Martin might be looking around at other college jobs in case he wants to get while the getting is good and re-start his coaching clock somewhere else.  (Somewhere else where tens of thousands of fans don’t sign petitions to bring back ex-coaches.)

*  It might be time for the NCAA to ditch its RPI formula and just use Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.  The hoops fan/math geek has done some nice work over at KenPom.com this year, as usual.  Of the 16 teams still alive in the NCAA tourney, Pomeroy has 14 of them ranked in his top 21.  Only Stanford (34) and Dayton (43) are distant from the main pack.  For the record, Pomeroy has Florida #1, Tennessee #6 and Kentucky #11 in his current national rankings.  If nothing else, the NCAA selection committee might steal a glance at his rankings next March before they start handing out seeds.

 

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If Kentucky Flames Out Will It Prove That Calipari’s One-And-Done Doesn’t Work?

john-calipari-shockedGet ready.

If/when Kentucky stubs its toe in the NCAA Tournament, you can be sure hundreds of columnists and media types (like us) will opine that we all finally have definitive proof that John Calipari’s one-and-done system won’t work.  An NIT washout in 2013 and a disappointing 2014 will be all many need to see before pronouncing judgement.  And that’s because so many of us questioned Calipari’s recruiting plan from the get-go.  If you doubted it in the beginning, it’ll be a heckuva lot easier to rip it after a pair of humdrum seasons.

That isn’t fair, of course.  Kentucky is 22-9 and the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament.  Yes, 22-9 is enough to make spoiled Wildcat fans yelp for Coach Cal’s scalp on Twitter and messageboards, but to most fans 22-9 would be a pretty good year.  Especially for a team loaded down with freshmen.  Any other big-time program going 22-9 with an inexperienced line-up would be described as “rebuilding” by the press.  But we won’t give Calipari that kind of break.

The reality is that a flameout in the NCAA tourney won’t at all prove Calipari’s system doesn’t work.  It will only prove that fielding teams made up of one-and-doners makes things more difficult for the coach himself.  Each year he has to learn a new group of starters.  Each year has to coax them into buying into a “team first” mentality.  And each year he has to pray that one of his rookies doesn’t go down with an injury.

Since he started pushing Kentucky as an NBA stepladder, Calpari has reached an Elite Eight, two Final Fours, a national title game (which UK won), the NIT, and now another NCAA tourney.  (The NIT bid came in a year in which Kentucky went 4-5 down the stretch after an injury to dominating big man Nerlens Noel.)  Most coaches, schools and fans would take that five-year record and smile.

In fact, isn’t it possible that we in the media overhyped this particular Wildcat recruiting class in the first place?  This was about the fourth year in a row in which America’s best-known basketball gurus declared that Kentucky had landed “The Greatest Class Of All-Time.”  (Pause for trumpets, fanfare.)  And if we in the press — along with rabid Big Blue fans — called it the best class ever, well, by gosh it has to be the coach’s fault he’s only gone 22-9.  To hell with chemistry.

This comes from a writer and website, mind you, that has questioned Calipari’s one-and-done plan.  Specifically, we wondered if fans would connect with any of these drive-thru players.  In 20 years, will anyone in the Bluegrass State remember which 9-month Kentucky residents were on a Final Four team and which were on the NIT team?  We believe all those faces and names will run together.  (For comparison, Florida fans will have a much easier time remembering the four seniors who led them to a perfect 18-0 SEC record this year.)

We’ve also written that toughest part of recruiting NBA superstars-in-waiting will be getting them to play team-first basketball.  Every blue-chipper UK signs was the brightest star on his high school team.  Attitudes have to be adjusted and some are more maleable than others.  Remarkably, Calipari’s first three batches of one-and-doners did yield to the team.  At least well enough to reach Elite Eights and beyond.

But even though we don’t believe a revolving door approach to recruiting is the best way to build a basketball program, we can’t claim that the past two seasons prove Calipari’s system won’t work long-term.  At least no more than we could have said after Calipari’s first three seasons, “Yep, this is going to be a breeze for Kentucky.”

The one-and-done approach makes things more difficult for the coach.  But four NCAA tourneys in five years with an Elite Eight, two Final Fours and a national title in the books doesn’t look too darn bad from where we sit.

Besides, what’s Calipari supposed to do?  Not sign star players who want to slip on a Kentucky jersey?  Please.  Wildcat fans would revolt.

But be ready.  If/when the Cats are ousted pre-Elite Eight from the Big Dance, Calipari’s one-and-done system will come under heavy fire.  Very heavy fire.

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Rumors Swirl That Calipari Will Leave Kentucky After This Season

john-calipari-would-you-trust-this-man-faceEach spring the sun comes out, flowers blossom, birds chirp, and John Calipari is rumored to be headed to the NBA.  Every.  Single.  Year.

Only this time the Coach Cal rumors are arriving a bit early.

According to KentuckySportsRadio.com, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon said yesterday on “Pardon The Interruption” that he believes Calipari will leave Kentucky after this season.  Then this morning Dan Patrick cited on his radio show a source close to the UK program who says Calipari could leave after the year:

 

Dan Patrick talks about John Calipari 3/04/14

 

Perhaps Calipari is ready to bail out on the UK job because his last two squads have disappointed.  The 2012-13 Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament and fell to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.  His current Cats — once aiming for “perfection” — now have eight losses on the season, five in the SEC and one to a South Carolina team that’s just 4-12 in league play.  That’s not what Big Blue fans want to see.

Calipari might be ready to leave because of those Everest-high fan expectations.  And signing five NBA prospects each year doesn’t exactly lower the bar for a coach.  Especially at a school where anything less than a Final Four trip is viewed as a failed season.

Calipari got the heave-ho via technical fouls during Kentucky’s loss at Carolina last weekend.  He then by-passed his postgame press conference.  A sign that pressure is getting to UK’s boss?  Or just an opportunity for folks to get in some digs?

Kentucky’s coach said all the right things yesterday, taking the blame for the Cats’ recent woes and refusing to “put this on 18-, 19-year-old kids.”  Whether or not he’ll be coaching another group of 18-, 19-year-old kids in Lexington next year is anyone’s guess.  Hell, Coach Cal could have had someone intentionally leak that he might leave in order to remind Wildcat fans to appreciate what they’ve got.  (Alabama’s Nick Saban did that very thing this past January by allowing Texas rumors to swirl for a week.)

But one thing’s for sure — the Calipari rumors are starting early this year.

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Kudos To Kentucky For Backing Stoops, Football With Cold Hard Cash

outsideThe University of Kentucky has hired coach after coach after coach in the hopes that a new guy with a new whistle could turn around the school’s football fortunes.  Now the school is going to invest a fortune into it’s program.  Automatically that improves the odds that UK’s latest hire will be able to change the trajectory of Wildcat football.

It’s not a guarantee of success, mind you, but Mark Stoops’ chances of succeeding will most certainly go up once UK spends $45 million to build a new football training center and practice fields.

Kentucky has announced that its board of trustees will vote Friday on the new, privately financed facilities.  The school announced last fall that it would be pouring $110 million into improvements at Commonwealth Stadium (improvements that sound fantastic, by the way).  Paying Stoops a good sum and allowing him to have the cash to hire good assistants has been a positive move.  Dumping an additional $155 million total into Stoops’ program is better and smarter.

James Franklin has been hailed as the man who turned around Vanderbilt’s program single-handedly.  Judging by the $5.8 million Penn State is paying Franklin in Year One (including this $1.5 million buyout from Vandy), PSU honchos certainly view him as a Lone Ranger type.  But while the coach did wonderful work on the field and in recruits’ living rooms, much of the credit actually needs to go to athletic director David Williams and the Vanderbilt administration.

Franklin wanted money thrown into the VU program.  He wanted a new practice/football facility.  He wanted guarantees of stadium improvements.  He got most of everything he wanted (and if scuttlebutt is to be believed, Commodore brass promised him all sorts of stadium upgrades while fighting to hang onto him).  Franklin didn’t stick around, but his good work and the upgrades made to the Vandy program allowed the school to land Derek Mason (and a very impressive staff) as Franklin’s replacement.  Would the defensive coordinator from a Pac-12 champion team have taken the VU job without the improvements the school and Franklin made?  Unlikely.

Vanderbilt had the right guy as coach, but the school’s turnaround began when that right guy was given something better to work with, something better to sell to recruits.  Judging by the recruiting Stoops has done in his first season — the man is basically selling a dream to prospects — Kentucky appears to have hired the right guy for its program.  With an influx of cash, UK AD Mitch Barnhart, the administration and the school’s boosters are giving Stoops something tangible that he can use in his efforts to make Kentucky an honest-to-God competitive football program.

Again, there’s no amount of money that can guarantee success in Lexington (or anywhere else).  But big money darn sure improves Kentucky’s and Stoops’ chances for success.

Bravo.

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