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Cal’s Cats are dancing tweak to tweak
BY KENNY COLSTON
John Calipari can’t coach.
His “one and done” system is flawed and borderline unsustainable. The 2012 national championship was a fluke. Sure, he can recruit, but once those teenagers get on campus, he can’t coach them or develop them. He has a player-for-rent system, 18-year-old mercenaries on their way to millions.
It’s not sustainable, the dribble-drive offense is glorified street ball and John Calipari embodies everything that is wrong with college basketball past, present and future, right?
But as recently as two weeks ago, those types of claims were prevalent throughout the Commonwealth and even in a few national media outlets. After a first-round NIT loss last year, Cal’s Cats were struggling through a 10-loss season this year and the first three years of Calipari’s tenure were looking more like a fluke than the norm.
But shame on the naysayers. The fate of teams change weekly, if not daily, in sports, notably college basketball.
On March 1, fresh off a loss to lowly South Carolina, the knives finally came out and most of America declared Kentucky dead. A 40-0 season already quite a laugh, it was time to discuss bigger things, like Calipari and his abilities.
Every critic of Calipari and Kentucky made plans to attend the team’s wake and laughed all the way to the funeral home. But like Walter Williams, a Mississippi man declared dead by a coroner only to wake up in a body bag at the funeral home, these Kentucky Wildcats are still kicking.
Unlike Mr. Williams, who sadly passed two weeks later, these Cats have made a full recovery and have toppled some of the nation’s best in the process.
Recently, The New Republic asked “Who should be afraid of John Calipari?”
Everybody. That’s who.
In April, Calipari will have put his third Kentucky squad into the Final Four in the last four years. The number of coaches who can boast the same? Zero.
Each year, Calipari practically coaches a new team to their success, an unimaginable feat. For reference, the Florida Gators, the consensus best team right now, is senior-laden and playing in their first final four since 2007.
Cal’s putting in his third. And when it’s all said in done, he could have his second title team in three years.
And in doing so, Calipari has taken down a murderer’s row of opponents. Undefeated Wichita State, defending champion Louisville, last year’s runner-up in Michigan.
Sure, the Cats haven’t always been the best this season and a little skepticism on March 1 may have been warranted. But not some of the scathing reviews unleashed on these Cats.
And definitely not a dissection of the “players first” philosophy Cal preaches about.
“Media were right to be skeptical before the tournaments started,” Kentucky social media personality The Fake Gimel Martinez said in an interview. “Those media who used the team’s struggles to promote their anti-Calipari beliefs, though, should be locked in a crow buffet for at least 48 hours.”
Any good recipes would probably be appreciated.
To say the 2013-2014 Kentucky basketball season has been a roller coaster would be an understatement. Normally, roller coasters have one big rise to the top, before a huge free fall.
Kentucky’s had a few.
Losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina took the shine off an undefeated season for the Cats, but were respectable losses to quality teams. Wins over Providence, Louisville and Boise State helped balance the scales.
The loss at Arkansas, a team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, on Jan. 14 was the first free fall. A spanking at the hands of Louisiana State two weeks later made stomachs across the Commonwealth turn again. But the biggest fall came at the end of February. Two straight losses, to Arkansas again and then to South Carolina, finally brought on the death watch. Hospice was on the phone and no one wanted to take the call.
A month later, a miracle (or tweak, if you want to use Cal’s terminology) has occurred and Kentucky roared it’s way into the Final Four. And it hasn’t been an easy road.
And there’s one person to take credit for the turnaround, whether he wants it or not.
“To me, it speaks highly of Calipari as a coach,” James Pennington, sports editor and UK beat writer for KyForward. com, said of Kentucky’s tournament march. “He was catching a lot of grief as recently as three weeks ago… it was looking like they were just toast. Then Calipari found some frequency that clicked with his team to get them to play.”
Pennington said the criticisms of Calipari as a tactical coach are off base. The tournament run proves that, he said. Other criticisms, including using Calipari to rail against players who only stay a year, will likely continue to hang around but are unfair too, Pennington said.
“Some are going to be informed on the topic,” Pennington said. “Others are willingly ignorant because they want to be.”
Eric Lindsey, the editor of CoachCal.com, said the knocks on Cal as a technical coach have always been off-base.
“I thought before the tournament that he was as underrated as it gets,” Lindsey said. “He’s a great X’s and O’s coach.”
Dismiss Lindsey’s comments at your own risk. Sure, he works for an entity with Calipari’s name on it, but Lindsey has covered UK in some form or fashion since 2007. He’s not some hired gun brought in just to cheer for Cal.
“The thing no one talks about is every year he adapt to what his teams need,” Lindsey said of Calipari’s ability to coach. “Every single year they were playing different. He adjusted to his player’s strengths, a big part of coaching is adapting.
“And Cal was the first one to say he should have done more adapting (this year). The last three weeks he’s been an underrated coach.”
Believe it or not, Calipari is not God. Or even a Hercules, Buddha or Allah. The turnaround of this team can be described as a miracle, but the truth is, the pieces were always there for success.
This tournament run is a surprise only because the talent assembled hadn’t yet clicked. The doubt was that it ever would.
But here’s the thing about John Calipari… he likes the doubters. Feeds off of them. Your doubts are like ceremonial sacrifices, it only makes Calipari stronger. And there was never more doubt and hate in Calipari’s tenure than this year.
The NIT season? Excusable, although not comfortably, after bringing home a title. But that honeymoon was over this season. Championship No. 9 was expected, and please go undefeated in the process, fans clamored.
In November, the Cats were on top. At the start of March, they had tumbled down Mount Everest. Calipari’s back was against the wall and UK fans in bars, churches and front porches across the state started murmuring, started doubting seriously.
“Cal is at his best when his back is against the wall,” Lindsey said. “I haven’t always seen it, because his teams at Kentucky have been good. but I’ve always heard when you count Cal out and there’s adversity, that’s when he’s at his best.”
Go back and look up the transcripts of the last few weeks. Calipari has always railed against the national media, some deserved and some not, and been playful with local media, especially Herald-Leader writer Jerry Tipton.
But even the players the last few weeks have referenced how us against the world it is. A one-time projected undefeated team has developed a chip on their shoulder, ironic or not.
“They definitely have an us versus the world (mentality),” Pennington said. “This year it’s UK versus the media. They have really hammered how the media is out to get them. You’ve heard Cal say it, ‘everything is overanalyzed.’ I do think they thrive on folks out to get them. They see themselves as world beaters from the top rather than the bottom. But I do think they use ‘everyone is out to get them’ as a motivational tool.”
The pressure to “tweak” came from within, not from any newspaper articles or fans lashing out, Lindsey said.
“He’s not feeling pressure from fans, I filter that,” Lindsey said. “I think he took a good hard look at what needed to change and came with a different mindset.”
It’s easy to think of Calipari as always a top coach. And maybe he has been.
But his coaching career didn’t start at Kentucky. In effect, his first major job was with the University of Massachusetts, where he lead the Minutemen to two Elite Eights and one Final Four. To be fair, the NCAA vacated the Final Four run, but Cal was never named in the allegations.
At UMass, Calipari never had one and done players. He built a program from the bottom up. Lindsey said he was reminded of this recently, by none other than Rick Pitino.
“He had to get guys for three or four years and coach them up,” Lindsey said of Calipari’s time at UMass. “The program was nothing before he got there.”
A similar situation occurred at Calipari’s next collegiate stop, the University of Memphis, which he took to the national championship before losing on a buzzer beater to Kansas (note: yes that run was vacated by the NCAA too. Yes, Cal was never named as someone who had wrongdoings).
Not every player at Memphis was a one and done guy. But a few were, when the team had success.
Both Pennington, Lindsey and Fake Gimel agree: to tag Calipari as the creator or facilitator of the one and done system is wrong. Sure, Cal recruits top talent and often they go pro after one year.
But he didn’t create those rules. The NBA did.
“He said since he’s been at Kentucky he’s against the one and done rule,” Lindsey said. “Says everyday he’s against the one and done rule. Behind the scenes, he thinks kids should be in school two to three years to get an education.”
Fair or not, the reputation will stick until Calipari starts losing out on more top recruits or the NBA changes its rules.
“People are going to talk about it as long as Cal is coach or until the NBA and the Players Association changes the current collective bargaining agreement,” Pennington said. “Until one of those things changes it will pop up every year. Cal won’t stop recruiting players who can go into the NBA after one year.”
The fact of the matter is, judging John Calipari on one part of one season is a great chance to draw of the ire of the Big Blue Nation. And if the team turns it around, a lot of hate on social media.
Trying to dissect his system can be foolish. Instant history is often written more skillfully as the time passes.
But the saying is numbers never lie, so here’s a few that make a case for Calipari. Five years at UK, four Elite Eights, three Final Fours and one title (so far).
Fake Gimel said the reasoning for Calipari bashing is simple.
“Anybody who wants to sum up Calipari’s system over one season is shortsighted and/or looking for pageviews,” he said.
This isn’t to say the one and done system works or doesn’t or that player’s first is a silly mantra that won’t pan out. The fact of the matter is, it’s too soon to know.
What evidence we have is small, but pretty solid. Arguing otherwise is just a chance to attract well-deserved hate.
In April, Calipari will debut his fourth book, Players First, to go along with his other motivation or coaching books. It will be his second book while he’s at UK.
According to Lindsey, this latest book will reveal more about Calipari and his systems than any book before it.
“It’s completely different,” Lindsey said. “It’s about who Cal is and how runs his programs. The other books are Xs and Os and motivational. This one has no b.s. in it, it’s just Cal and why he’s all about the players.”
The book is timed to release just after the national championship and Cal could be doing a book tour while a championship trophy.
Regardless, the philosophy has been criticized by some, but embraced by others.
“I support the ‘Players First’ mentality that Calipari and his coaching staff incorporates. I know lots of Kentucky fans think that Cal’s mindset should be ‘Kentucky first,’ Fake Gimel said. “But Cal knows that Kentucky’s priority is winning. Getting the best talent and developing them quickly to play together wins a lot of basketball games and challenges for national championships, even if it means losing a few games to in-conference foes.
“Calipari isn’t paid millions a year to run a basketball charity, he’s paid to win.”
And so far, all Calipari has done is win, win, win. No matter what.
It’s time to be afraid.
Coach Cal will sign Players First on April 17, 2014 at 6 pm at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green.
This article also appears on page 6 of the April 3, 2014 print edition of Ace Weekly.
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