John Clay: Redemption against Kansas would negate criticism of Calipari

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 1, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — For John Calipari, one demon remains.

He has beaten his friend in Tom Crean.

He has beaten his enemy in Rick Pitino.

Now, he must beat his past.

If the coach can accomplish that Monday night when his team plays Kansas in the national championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — for Calipari a rematch of his 2008 national title game loss to Bill Self and the Jayhawks — then Kentucky basketball can make an addition to its tradition.

Then the preservation society that is the Big Blue Nation can finally commence at its appointed destination of Rupp Arena and hang that eighth national championship banner.

"It's not about me, it's about them," Calipari said here at his Sunday news conference, nodding toward the five Wildcats beside him at the podium.

To be sure, players are first. No program is about players alone, however. They are a third of the athletic trinity of players, coach and program.

No other place is that more true than Kentucky, where its fans eat and breathe and live and die with each bounce of an orange ball, where each season begins with the collective dream of a crown.

This particular collection, 37-2 on the season, the tournament's No. 1 seed, has taken a tradition-filled route toward that end, beating Western Kentucky in the first game, then stopping a would-be Cat in Royce White and Iowa State in the second.

Last week, in Atlanta, Calipari was forced to face his friend Crean and Indiana in a rematch with the lone outfit that managed to best UK in the regular season. The Cats prevailed, then blew by Baylor in the South Regional finals.

Here, in the Big Easy, Calipari and his program were forced to face their archrivals, Pitino and Louisville, where pre-game niceties did nothing to soften the post-game consequences.

Anthony Davis scored 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to validate his numerous national awards.

Senior Darius Miller, the lone Kentuckian of significance in this civil war, the lone significant senior on a team known for one-and-doners, rose to the occasion on a raised floor. The Cats punched their ticket for Monday night madness.

There waiting, again, is Kansas.

Lawrence is where it all began for Calipari. He was a volunteer assistant under Ted Owens there. He worked for Larry Brown there. He met his wife there. He got his start there.

The two winningest programs in college basketball have never met in the title game. They have played this season, however.

On Nov. 15 in Madison Square Garden, Kentucky won 75-65. The halftime score was 28-28. Kentucky opened the second half with a 13-2 run. With five minutes remaining, the Cats led by 17.

Kansas is different now. It defends better, rebounds better. Thomas Robinson progressed into a contender for national honors. Tyshawn Taylor became a leader. Self did possibly his best coaching job.

It's the Kansas of 2007-08 that presents the problem, however.

If Kentucky has not played the Jayhawks for the title, Calipari has. The year was 2008. The site was San Antonio. The trophy was all but in the hands of Derrick Rose and his Memphis Tigers, Calipari's team leading by nine points with 2:12 to play.

Somehow, it all fell apart. Memphis missed from the foul line — three in the final 75 seconds — and Kansas' Mario Chalmers didn't miss from behind the three-point line, his famous shot knotting the score with nine seconds remaining

Calipari opted to play on, eschewing a timeout. Memphis missed again. Overtime commenced. Kansas sprinted ahead. And Calipari suffered the most painful loss of his career.

"I'm fine with that game," he said Sunday when asked what he learned from the experience.

"Make free throws," answered Calipari. "That's what I learned."

He admitted he's never watched the game tape, however. Threw it out the bus window leaving the arena, he joked. Why rehash the past? Just move on.

It is four years later. Calipari is at Kentucky and at his second Final Four and first national title game since.

"Cal is such a great recruiter," said Self on Saturday night after his Jayhawks beat Ohio State, "that it gets lost that he's one of the very best coaches in the country."

The dissenters always have that final game of 2008.

Now, in the final game of 2012, Calipari can beat them, too.

"It would mean a lot to bring that No. 8 back to Kentucky," said UK sophomore Doron Lamb on Sunday, just yards from the Superdome floor. "It would mean a lot to Coach Cal to win that first championship. Especially for us."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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