Since John Calipari has taken over at the University of Kentucky, he has sent 15 players to the NBA — by far the most of any program since 2010 — gone to four Elite Eights, three Final Fours and won a national championship. Calipari took over at Kentucky before the 2009-10 season and has turned the Wildcats into a team with consistently high expectations.
When Kentucky was still a dominant force before Calipari’s arrival, the Wildcats appeared in nine Elite Eights, four Final Fours and won two national championships from 1992-2009. During that time a total of 16 players from those Kentucky squads were selected into the NBA. Only six of them still play in the NBA (headlined by Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics).
To put this into perspective, in 16 years Kentucky appeared in the same number of Final Fours and put fewer players (assuming at least two players on the current roster declare for and are drafted in the 2014 draft, which will happen) and could end up winning the same number of national titles than what John Calipari has done during his five years in Lexington.
Put aside what you think about Calipari for a second. Forget his history of having two different Final Four teams suffer vacated victories, banners taken down and sanctions brought about during his tenures with Memphis and Massachusetts. Like him or not Calipari knows how to get results. He had one struggling year at Kentucky and they only began to really take a turn for the worse once Nerlens Noel, their best player, went down with a torn ACL. There’s no denying the success the Wildcats have had under Calipari.
Not only is Kentucky building something great, it’s also become a farm system of sorts for the NBA. Calipari routinely gets the best recruiting classes in the country, most of them continue to be labeled as the best recruiting class that has ever been assembled. These young players in the one-and-done era know that Kentucky has the best track record for having successful teams, helping them improve their skills and get them onto the fasted track to the NBA possible. The numbers don’t lie. Fifteen players in four full seasons under Calipari have gone to the NBA with give-or-take six more prospects on this year’s team alone.
All of these numbers are outstanding, but Calipari can leave a mark greater than all these numbers if he can lead his Wildcats to a national championship in the 2014 Final Four.
If it wasn’t for all the media attention and overzealous expectations, the success Kentucky has had this year would be amazing to see. Instead it’s cast off at the thought of, “Well, this is what was supposed to happen.” Sure having what is again considered the best recruiting class ever assembled is nice but it takes a certain level of talent and a mix of great coaching to get a group of young players, freshmen no less, to come together and win a title. Calipari did that once before with his 2011-12 squad led by now New Orleans Pelican Anthony Davis. Davis was a special talent and that 2012 national title team was special. From day one Kentucky dominated the competition, only stumbling a few times along the way. There was little doubt about that team winning it all.
The same cannot be said about the current Wildcats. Before the season fans expected this talented group of players to go undefeated en route to a championship. T-shirts and websites were made resembling their expected 40-0 record for the season. That dream lasted less than a week into the season as Kentucky dropped its third game to Michigan State, a proven, deep team. The wheels slowly began to fall off for Kentucky, losing two more non-conference games to Baylor and North Carolina. Six losses in conference play dwindled the thought of the Wildcats winning it all, especially having lost to top-overall seeded Florida Gators three times (with a potential fourth meeting awaiting in the title game on Monday).
As a No. 8-seed, Kentucky went into the NCAA tournament playing much, much better than they had all season. Andrew and Aaron Harrison began to overcome their lack of confidence late in the season, James Young became more than just a 3-point threat and Julius Randle continued to be a consistent double-double threat every game. Dakari Johnson came on and proved to be a reliable asset in the paint and Willie Cauley-Stein found his rhythm as a shot blocker and inside threat. Everything seemed to come together for the Wildcats.
Then Kentucky was placed into what was called “The Region of Death” with Michigan, Wichita State, Duke and Louisville all as possible opponents. Kentucky played three of those four teams (Duke lost in the Round of 64 to Mercer) and beat them all by playing a complete game and getting clutch play from all of those freshmen that were faced with adversity this season. Not only did the Wildcats win, they played arguably their best basketball of the season, not a bad time to start putting it all together.
With two games left to play before being crowned as champions once again, Calipari has something remarkable waiting for him. Regaining the national title with the season the Wildcats have had this year would by far be his best accomplishment as a head coach. Taking a group of freshmen whom are your primary everything for your basketball team and beating more experienced, also well-coached teams on your way to a championship is not an easy task.
All of the accolades, all the players in the NBA means very little compared to the supremacy of winning a national championship as a coach. From all the struggles his young team has had, to see them grow as a team and get better together, not individually, and get back to being the team they were expected to be, Calipari would have his greatest accomplishment.
Winning it all is no easy task, not with Wisconsin waiting and Florida or UConn waiting to knock off the Wildcats. It’s nothing new for Kentucky or Calipari, though. They’ve been the butt of jokes all season. Now they can put all those criticisms aside with two more victories.
This season has been great for John Calipari, but a national title would make it his best season ever.