Final Four Preview: Kentucky
In the spring of 2002, then-Memphis coach John Calipari took DaJuan Wagner's scholarship papers, ripped them up and told the freshman to declare for the NBA Draft.
The story's well known, with a national audience reminded of it recently thanks to S.L. Price's wonderful profile of the Kentucky coach in the March 14 issue of Sports Illustrated. It was a landmark move in an era before the one-and-done age had come to fruition. Before the age limit. Before Derrick Rose. Before John Wall. Before Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
Calipari was ahead of his time. The stunt rung true to every high schooler with NBA dreams. Here was a coach who put your aspirations ahead of his own.
Calipari hasn't won a national title. He blew his most recent chance thanks to a series of missed free throws and a wonderful shot by Mario Chalmers in 2008. Last season, a group of five first-round picks couldn't get him into the Final Four.
Here he is. This is Calipari's best shot yet. This is the team Kentucky fans, and Calipari fans (if such a thing exists, with all the negative publicity the man gets), have been waiting for.
The Wildcats are the best team in the Final Four, with all respect to seeding. (Kentucky is a No. 4 seed, while Connecticut was seeded third.) Neither the Huskies nor Cinderellas Butler and Virginia Commonwealth offer the type of total package Calipari has in fold.
He's doing it with just two probable one-and-done players, not four as he had last season. Neither Terrence Jones nor Brandon Knight appear viable top-five picks in the upcoming NBA Draft, despite the obvious momentum gained from this run.
He's doing it with three players in the starting he didn't recruit. Billy Gillispie recruits. Recruits deemed unworthy of Kentucky blue, or at least that was part of the argument made in support og Gillispie's firing two seasons ago.
All those years ago, Calipari tore up Wagner's contract and said to the world: “I'm willing to do what other coaches resent. I'll win with freshman every year.” He's reached 22 wins every single season since and the Sweet 16 each of the last six years.
He hasn't won it all.
Next season, Calipari brings in another “John Calipari” class. That means four five-star prospects, according to Rivals.com. He had four this year, with Knight, Jones, Doron Lamb and the ineligible Enes Kanter, and four last year.
But this season should serve as a lesson to Calipari. No team has ever won a title with such a high volume of freshmen contributing in such a way. Syracuse was led by Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara and Billy Edlin in 2003, sure, but that team boasted sophomores Hakim Warrick and Josh Pace and senior Kueth Duany playing crucial roles.
Oh, and one of those freshman was Carmelo Anthony. Hear he's not your average diaper dandy.
Kentucky's chances to win it all this year largely hinge on the team chemistry brought by veteran role players Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. Of the three, Liggins is the only one who appears to boast NBA potential. And while Miller and Liggins were sought-after recruits, they weren't the type of blue-chippers Calipari tends to bring in quickly and let go with even less haste.
Should Kentucky win it all, will Calipari begin to understand the frustrations echoed by many old-school coaches about the one-and-done system? Will he stop tearing up scholarships when a player considers coming back?
Doubt it. Calipari's never been one to bend to public opinion. It's why he's so hated. It's why he's so good at what he does. It just so happens that a few players he never had to sell on NBA dreams have stuck around long enough to help him in his best shot yet to win a title.
Editor's note: Adi Joseph will be writing features on all the Final Four teams. Read his story on Connecticut, and check back later for stories on Butler and Virginia Commonwealth.
Michael Gilstrap? Wow.
Thanks for the correction, and I apologize for the error.
Best shot yet to win a title? I'm pretty sure his best shot was with Memphis when they lost to Kansas a few years back.
I meant it more as in, that year, four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. Memphis, as a result, wasn't the favorite.
This year, Kentucky was the favorite.