NEW ORLEANS — With the controversial reliance on so-called one-and-done players and the rooting-for-Goliath scope of the program, Kentucky's national championship season of 2011-12 didn't generate universal applause. A column in The Wall Street Journal in the week leading to the Final Four suggested the UK operation held all the warmth of a "business transaction."
After Kentucky beat Kansas in Monday night's championship game, Coach John Calipari said, "A lot of angry people right now who said, 'You couldn't do it,' the people who put the black hat on me and stuff, they're not real happy."
Yet, Calipari wrapped the championship season in a warm and fuzzy metaphorical blanket. He evoked thoughts of the sweet ending to one of Hollywood's most sentimental basketball-themed movies. Hoosiers ends with the camera slowly closing in on a team photo on the gym wall. The viewer comes to recognize the Hickory team and reflect on its fictional championship run and the movie's story of redemption.
The voice of Coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, can be heard telling his players, "I love you guys."
With Kentucky securing the program's eighth national championship, Calipari expressed his love and appreciation.
"They'll have a big picture in the Craft Center of their national championship team," he said. "They can walk (their children) up, show them: 'This was me. I was skinny then, I know, but that's what I looked like.'
"It's for the ages, now."
Throughout the season, basketball analysts and opposing coaches remarked on Kentucky's unity of purpose. For all the future pros, and Calipari spoke here of the possibility of as many as six first-round picks in this year's NBA Draft, a collective spirit was UK's calling card.
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart held out the Cats as an example for others to follow.
"This team, the best lesson, for all young people watching us, if you do something together, if you play more for your teammates than yourself, if you sacrifice, you know, give up a little bit of yourself for the team, some amazing stuff can be done," he said.
Kentucky, which set an NCAA record with 38 victories, nearly set a school record by having six players average double-digit points. Darius Miller came up three points shy of being the sixth.
Seven different players led the team in scoring in a game.
"This team is defined by (the word) 'Unselfish,'" Barnhart said. "It defines who this team is in that they don't care who gets the credit."
Throughout the season, Calipari's proven ability to meld NBA-bound players into an effective unit was on display. UK led the nation in field-goal defense and rated among the top 10 in shooting accuracy. If that didn't make the case for a share-the-ball approach, how about committing only six turnovers while scoring 102 points against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinals?
So when Kansas suggested Sunday it would try to out-steady Kentucky, by inference saying Kentucky might splinter into a collection of individual stars under Final Four pressure, listeners had reason to be dubious.
Kansas unwittingly gave Kentucky a cause.
"What I wanted them to show ... is that we were not just a talented team," Calipari said. "We were a defensive team, and we were a team that shared the ball. I wanted everybody to see it because it became, 'They're more talented than everybody.'
"We were the best team this season. We were the best team. The most efficient team."
Kentucky's defense was remarkably consistent. Only one opponent made 50 percent or more of its shots (Indiana in the South Regional); 25 shot less than 40 percent.
Freshman Anthony Davis anchored the defense, setting an NCAA record for blocks in a season by a freshman (186). He also set a Southeastern Conference record for blocks.
The championship game typified his team-first approach. He made only one basket (in 10 shots), yet grabbed 16 rebounds, blocked six shots and equaled a career high with five assists.
"You all score the ball," he said he told his teammates. "I'll just defend and rebound."
Davis did both well enough to become the first player since Duke's Bobby Hurley in 1992 to be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player despite not scoring 10 or more points in the championship game.
"He's grown into that," Calipari said of Davis' improvement this season. "The greatest thing for Anthony Davis, he goes up on the stage, accepts his award at the NABC and says, 'I want to thank all our guards for getting beat on the dribble.' Then he comes back out for the Naismith and says, 'I'm baaaaaack.' Are you kidding me? Do you know how much he's grown in the last six months? Eight months? He didn't feel the pressure of, 'I have to do this.' It was. 'We have to do this. If I care more about my teammates than myself, this is not hard.'"
In response to a reporter's question, Kansas Coach Bill Self saluted how Calipari and UK's coaching staff created a one-for-all team. But Self couldn't resist adding, "They're playing with pros. That didn't hurt, either."
Kentucky's inexperience (three starters were freshmen) made for a few speedbumps. Many opponents, beginning with Old Dominion in November, tried to be physical with the Cats.
UK showed its resolve — its "will to win," to borrow a Calipari term — at Indiana in December. One of the most electric atmospheres in this or any recent season saw Kentucky rally from nine down in the final eight minutes only to lose on a three-pointer at the buzzer.
A three-knockdown rule could have been invoked at LSU in January, where Davis hit the deck and/or winced in pain three times. Kentucky won by 24.
After Kentucky beat Florida by 20 on Feb. 7, Gators Coach Billy Donovan tried to dissuade reporters from trying to find a critical UK weakness that opponents could exploit. There wasn't one, he said.
Despite its gaudy record, Kentucky had to dig deep on several occasions to win.
As victories accumulated, expectations rose to a championship-or-bust level.
"That's what being at Kentucky is about," Calipari said. "How many of these type of games did we have this year? You tell me, 15? 18? That's what being at Kentucky is about. You'll get ready for this tournament.
"Only thing you've got to get the team to do is forget about the tournament and just play basketball. And that's what we were able to do with this group."
Kentucky's victory over Kansas — and its eighth national championship — seemed to bring a sense of completeness. The Cats finished the job. Another of the freshman stars, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, made it sound on Sunday as if this championship was as inevitable as a production line turning out a product. "No. 8 is on the way," he said.
After Monday's game, Calipari set a tone of satisfaction with a job well done.
"We were just sitting there like we always did," he said. "I talked to them about the game. Had a couple of guys get up and I hugged them and told them I loved them. We talked about what they did for the game.
"Doron Lamb had a great shoot-around. I predicted he was going to have 25 points tonight. He had 22. I said 'You're going to have 25 points tonight. The way you are warming up, the way this shoot-around is going.'
"I'm proud of Terrence Jones. That was a man he had to play (Kansas' Thomas Robinson). He did a fine job against him.
"And how about Anthony. How about Marquis Teague, hit a big three and those two free throws. How about Terrence Jones scooping that ball up on the side, we come down and score. That was a huge, huge play."
It was a season of plays huge and small, all done in a sharing, caring manner.