Posted by Matt Jones
Sports writing is easier when we can put subjects into an easy-to-navigate narrative. A normal story has a good guy, a bad guy, some type of compelling action and presto, you have a column that can be churned out to fit everything from the NFL Labor dispute to the Final Four.
What is much more difficult to figure out is how to handle a complex individual or one that does something to alter previous stereotypes. Then, the thoughtful person is required to re-examine previously held assumptions in order to understand if that stereotype was correct. That is a much more difficult path and requires self-reflection, a trait as rare as the dodo bird among some in sports media.
This is why, in part, this Kentucky Final Four appearance is difficult for many to swallow. Right or wrong, Wildcats coach John Calipari long ago was placed into an easily digestible template utilized for any story about him. As a person, he was a slick salesmen, operating on the edge of the NCAA's rulebook. As a coach, he was mediocre at best, gifted at collecting talent but not much of a tactician. And many in the media exploited his failures almost as a springboard to pursue his next controversy.
But this Final Four, Calipari and his team don't fit that construct. Yes, this Kentucky team has talent. Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones are potential lottery picks and Doron Lamb a likely future NBA first-rounder. But this team is not like last year's group, loaded with Calipari's trademark one-and-dones. Instead, three veterans, none recruited by Calipari nor significant contributors in the past, have risen up and helped lift the Wildcats to Houston.
Darius Miller , DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson are nice players. But coming into this season, all three were virtually unknown outside of the Kentucky basketball world. This is not Derrick Rose , John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins showcasing professional ability transcending any college coach. Instead, these are players who have had to work hard to simply see the court in college. Calipari has put these players in a spot where they can be successful and excel as a team. That isn't about collecting great talent, but coach and players coming together to get the most out their abilities.
At the East Regional in Newark, Kentucky played two teams which had not only better talent, but also were more "team-oriented" (read: better-coached). And in both games, Calipari outmaneuvered his opponent. Against Thad Matta's Ohio State team, Calipari defended star center Jared Sullinger straight up with Harrellson -- no double team -- and focused on shutting down the perimeter. He put defensive stopper Liggins on Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft and the result discombobulated Ohio State's normally efficient attack.
Against Roy Williams and North Carolina, Calipari reversed his previously unsuccessful plan from a December loss to UNC. Instead of attacking Carolina's big men inside and allowing their height to be an advantage, Kentucky focused more on driving and kicking out to open 3-point shooters. The result was 12 made 3s for the Wildcats and a neutralization of some of the interior defensive effectiveness of Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes .
In both games, Calipari's squad executed a specific plan aimed at cutting off the other team at the knees. The plan in both games involved significant offensive contributions from Kentucky's three previously unknown veterans, who combined for 37 points in each of the two games. This was not the case of Calipari team hitting another team over the head and breaking their will with raw talent. Instead it was beating the other team by reacting to their strengths and exploiting their weakness, aka coaching.
Now a Kentucky team that spent most of the year on the outer edges of the Top 25 is in the program's 14th Final Four, with a legitimate chance to win its eighth national title. The team has been carried, not by a group of made up of McDonald's All-Americans whose recruitment raised clouds of suspicions, but a group of onetime bench-warmers who raised their level of play to new heights. It is a team that if coached by someone like Tom Izzo , would be praised as "gritty" or "tough" and held up as using exemplary coaching tactics.
But will Calipari get the same accolades? Old habits and assumptions die hard. One regular critic, ESPN's Dana O'Neill , said on television that it's worth noting in the UK-UConn semifinal, is that UConn was "on probation too." The statement seemed to assume that Calipari lives on perpetual probation (she later apologized for misspeaking on Twitter). But it cannot be ignored that Calipari's previous two Final Four trips were vacated and one can most certainly guarantee there will be numerous articles written bringing up the various issues from his coaching past.
But beyond all that, this Final Four proves that Calipari is a fine coach. Since Kentucky's most recent Final Four trip in 1998, there have arguably been five better UK teams. But this unit made it to Houston because it has come closer to reaching its fullest potential than any of those others.
There probably are not five NBA first-round draft picks on the roster, but five players playing as well as they possibly can together at precisely the right time. By any standard, that is the sign of solid coaching. One would think that even the most vociferous Calipari critic must acknowledge this accomplishment. But that wouldn't fit easily into the Calipari narrative, causing many to avoid this obvious truth, even as the proof takes the court Saturday in the Final Four.