John Clay: Title is all that remains for Calipari

coach has achieved fans' other goals

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2011 

There is really only one thing left.

John Calipari has done it all since he came to Kentucky three seasons ago.

Well, almost.

He's put Kentucky back in the win column. Remember that before Billy Gillispie was forced out the door after his two-year reign of terror, which followed Tubby Smith's slide into mediocrity, UK basketball was a once-premier program that had not reached the measuring stick of the Final Four since 1998.

The Cats weren't great. They were once great.

Calipari has assembled the best talent. Near the end of his 10-year term, Smith was known for his just-misses on the recruiting trail. He kept taking those disappointing phone calls from recruits who decided to go elsewhere. Gillispie got commitments from eighth-graders.

Calipari gets commitments from players who in reality are pros, but because of ridiculous rules, must play one year in college. They want to spend that one year with Calipari. The reason is that Calipari assures they will end up in the pros.

It's the reason why under Calipari, Kentucky has had the No. 1 recruiting class three years running.

He's put Kentucky back in the forefront. To be honest, UK basketball fans have always been a little over the top. Calipari is right there with them and beyond. He's talking Kentucky Effect and "we are the needle" and feeding the beast that loves to be fed, that has to be fed.

He is the master marketer. Calipari has CoachCal.com and a never-ending array of tweets. He has Orange Leaf and coaching clinics and Pro Camps, and he even coached the Dominican Republic National Team this summer.

No, check that. He not only coached the Dominican Republic National Team this summer, he organized and executed a pair of exhibition games that included former UK players now in the NBA, which sold out Rupp Arena. We're talking about exhibition games.

He is also a better coach than he often gets credit for. Last season's Kentucky team was 5-5 at one point in the SEC. It ended up 10-6, won the SEC Tournament, then beat top seed Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament. To get there, the coach who supposedly can't X and O, who can't win the close ones, triumphed in a slew of close games.

He did not win a close one in the Final Four, however. That's no sin, by any means. To reach the Final Four is a tremendous accomplishment for any team, for most programs.

Thing is, Kentucky isn't most programs. Getting the Cats back to the Final Four is great. It's not, however, what is expected. If you are the Kentucky coach, at some point you are expected to win a national championship.

Cal has never won one of those. He reached a Final Four at UMass way back in 1996. (He lost to UK in the national semifinals.) He reached the national finals while at Memphis, losing in overtime to Kansas. He returned to the Final Four last season, one of those rare coaches to take three different teams to the Final Four. (Spare me your "vacate" venting.)

But he hasn't stood there on Monday night with the trophy in his hand.

This year may be his best chance. As always, that may have as much to do with timing as talent. Connecticut will be good this year, as will Ohio State, Syracuse and a few others.

North Carolina will be very good, thanks to an impressive mix of talent and experience in Chapel Hill. When it's all said and done, most think the title will come down to UNC or UK come April in New Orleans.

After all, in less than three short years, John Calipari has done everything he set out to do at Kentucky.

Almost.

There's just one thing left.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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