Coach not afraid to embrace No. 1 ranking

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 24, 2010 

John Calipari hit it head-on.

Of course, he did.

What else did you expect?

Come on now, after his Kentucky basketball team had come as close to complete as it has been all season, after it had ripped up the Razorbacks of Arkansas 101-70 in Rupp Arena, Calipari was asked about the drop-dead certainty that the Cats will be ranked No. 1 in both polls come Monday.

Close your eyes and picture nearly every other coach in the country recoiling in horror at even the thought of being asked about being the top-ranked team in the country.

Now open your eyes, the way Calipari opens his eyes.

Here's what the coach said: "I try to tell (the players), those seven national titles are not a burden. They're a badge of honor. No. 1 in the country is not a burden. That's an honor. We'll see how we respond now."

He didn't cheapen it. He didn't discount it. He didn't avoid it. He didn't run away from it.

Just as Calipari said that, something hit you: How many times have you heard the coach talk about the dreaded D-word this season, D as in distractions?

The answer would be rarely. If ever. Talking distractions is the traditional coach calling card, the go-to quote, the stated reason to avoid anything that doesn't involve the straight and narrow of preparation and performance.

Yes, Cal has talked a little about outside influences, about keeping humble and hungry, about not "drinking the poison." He did mention Saturday his previous top-ranked teams were experienced.

"I'm playing with children," he said Saturday. "But they're very good children."

He's just not your traditional coach, a coach who runs from rankings, or expectations, or the possible problems with one-and-dones. or recruiting two highly touted point guards in the same year. He turns distractions into domination.

Take boosters and fans. Twin-barreled distractions, right? Cal's predecessor thought so. Cal, not so much. After all, how many coaches would take time out of the middle of the season to put together a telethon that so far has raised more than $1.25 million for Haiti? Would take time? Cal did take time.

Take starting three freshmen. First off, traditional coach doesn't start three freshmen. If traditional coach did, he or she would spend nearly 24 hours a day using that as a crutch to lower expectations.

And, to be sure, Calipari has talked about his team's youth, about how the Cats are like the 15th-youngest team in the nation or something. He talked Saturday about how his previous top-ranked clubs were much more experienced.

Yet, Calipari didn't offer it as a pre-emptive excuse. He didn't beat it into the ground.

His team had done enough of that over the previous two hours. Poor John Pelphrey. The ex-Wildcat was in the wrong place, wrong time. Pelphrey's Arkansas got UK's A-game.

"This is by far the best team we've played as far as physical talent," said the Razorbacks coach, who counts Texas among his team's previous foes.

Even Calipari asked his team afterward, "Are we this good?"

If they are, here's one reason: Saturday, with the scoreboard separation growing and the Cats partying, John Wall tried a circus 360 trick shot from under the rim.

"I made it in high school," Wall would protest afterward.

He didn't make this one. Assistant coach Rod Strickland, he of the NBA bonafides, grinned. At first, Wall's teammates surely wanted to join in, but were afraid to for fear what the head coach might say.

Calipari didn't say anything.

"The reason why," he said afterward, "was that if he made that shot, it would have been the greatest shot I've ever seen."

Now how many coaches would have said that?

Or this: No. 1 is not a burden.

It's an honor.

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