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Love it or hate it, Coach Cal’s one-and-done approach lands UK in yet another Final Four


UK Coach Calipari

UK Coach Calipari

Love him or hate him, you can no longer deny him – or his players or his process.

John Calipari’s controversial approach to building college basketball teams was validated and vindicated Sunday evening as another bunch of freshmen led the University of Kentucky to another Final Four.

With seven rookies accounting for roughly 90 percent of the points, rebounds and minutes, the Wildcats ousted second-seeded Michigan 75-72 in the Midwest Region final.

Calipari was supposed to get his comeuppance this March. The NCAA tournament was going to prove that a revolving-door roster of one-and-dones was no match for old-school squads staffed by wily upperclassmen.

The KiddieCats have emphatically proved otherwise. In an eight-day tour de force, they defeated three of the top seven teams in the AP poll: No. 2 Wichita State, No. 5 Louisville and No. 7 Michigan.

All three teams had Final Four experience. All three were outplayed by an octet of underclassmen who were virgins to March Madness.

So the children’s crusade marches on, this time to Arlington, Texas, where UK will contest the Final Four for the third time in four years.

Most coaches agree that talent trumps experience, but few have put the bromide to a stiffer test than has John Calipari. He has been so proficient at elevating players to the NBA that his program has become more reliant on newcomers with each passing year. This year, Calipari’s fifth in Lexington, the youth movement seemed to collapse under the weight of its own precocity.

The Wildcats got worse as the season wore on. They looked disheveled, dispirited and wholly unworthy of the hype that surrounded the team last fall. The recruiting class billed as the greatest of all-time, the impetus for UK’s No. 1 ranking in the preseason polls, was a boon that went bust.

UK closed the regular season with four losses in seven games, a seemingly irreversible skid. Calipari, after spending an entire month blaming everyone but himself, took the pressure off his team by putting the onus on himself.

On the eve of the SEC tournament, Calipari made a “tweak” to the Wildcats’ offense and said he should have made the adjustment long ago. To my knowledge, no expert or layman has yet identified the tweak. It probably doesn’t exist, not as a meaningful, strategic breakthrough anyway.

Though Calipari deserves credit for boosting his team’s crippled psychology at the 11th hour, I suspect he owes much of the team’s turnaround to the man who begat his starting guards.

Coach Calipari and UK's Harrison Twins

Coach Calipari and the Harrison Twins
Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

Aaron Harrison Sr. trekked from Texas to Lexington to his visit his twin sons before they started postseason play. According to Courier-Journal columnist Adam Himmelsbach, he discovered that Aaron Jr. and Andrew were struggling to cope with the notion that they might not be one-and-done after all.

The twins’ erratic play had prompted NBA analysts to delete their names from the list of projected first-round draft picks. Their father basically said, “So what? Come back to college next year. Stay as long as you need to.”

The twins have been on a tear ever since.

Andrew, the point guard, has become a better passer and a more selective shooter. Aaron, the shooting guard, has become a stone-cold killer from three-point range, making 50 percent of his attempts in the postseason.

Aaron Harrison gunned down archrival Louisville with a late three-pointer on Friday. On Sunday he drained the biggest shot of the tournament – and one of the biggest in UK history – to oust Michigan. It was a long, high-arcing three-pointer, perfectly defended by the Wolverines’ Caris LeVert, that splashed the net with 2.3 seconds to play.

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of that shot. As CBS analyst Steve Kerr said during the West Region final between Arizona and Wisconsin, a monumental chasm separates the Elite Eight from the Final Four.

“You lose and you’re just another team that made a nice run,” Kerr said. “You win and you’re part of history.”

By avenging an old defeat – Michigan’s Fab Five derailed UK in the 1993 Final Four – the young Wildcats now stand on the brink of achieving what their famous predecessors could not.

In 1992, the Fab Five fell one game short of becoming the first NCAA champion ever to start five freshmen. Their dream was thwarted by one of the finest teams in the history of the sport, a Duke squad that repeated as national titlists that year.

Nothing so formidable stands in the KiddieCats’ way.

They aren’t a perfect team, but they have no glaring weakness. They are potent from the perimeter, overpowering in the paint and overwhelming on the backboards. And they are as deep as the Mariana Trench.

Louisville and Michigan duked it out for the national title last year and were regarded as prime contenders again this spring. UK conquered both despite losing one of its best players to a sprained ankle early in Friday’s Sweet 16 game.

Kansas lost star center Joel Embiid and was upset in the second round. Iowa State lost playmaking forward Georges Niang and succumbed in Round 3. UK lost shot-blocking center Willie Cauley-Stein and barreled on to the Final Four.

Marcus Lee, a five-star recruit who would have started for most any other team in the nation, spent his freshman season buried on the Wildcats’ bench. Exhumed on Sunday, he interred Michigan with 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots in 15 minutes, an invaluable and utterly unpredictable contribution that only Kentucky’s bench, an embarrassment of riches, could make.

Unlike other 8 seeds that have crashed the Final Four, the Wildcats are nobody’s Cinderella. They are Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother, a despot who wields cold power.

People resent the way Calipari stockpiles young talent. They believe college basketball is less collegiate when teams become mere waystations for prodigies en route to the pros. But what is Calipari supposed to do? Refuse to recruit blue-chippers? Close his bulging cupboards and just turn them away?

There isn’t a coach on Earth who doesn’t want to hoard all the talent he can. It’s silly to fault Calipari for doing so.

It’s even sillier to pretend that Calipari is merely a great recruiter and not a great coach. I can’t vouch for his Xs and Os, but his Ws speak for themselves. He did excellent work with lesser talent at Massachusetts and Memphis, and he has built from scratch four national contenders in five seasons at UK.

It works. There’s no denying it.

So far, there’s no beating it, either.


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