Sports

John Clay: UNC game means Calipari's time has arrived

Saturday is why Kentucky hired John Calipari.

To be sure, UK's basketball coach has gone above and beyond to embrace the public side of the job description. He grips. He grins. He tweets. He speaks. He speaks some more.

To say Calipari is light years ahead of his predecessor in the category of public persona is a vast understatement. No coach, not even Rick Pitino, has energized the Big Blue Nation the way Calipari has energized the Big Blue Nation.

But that's not the real reason that he was hired to be the Kentucky basketball coach.

John Calipari was hired to win NCAA championships.

And to do that, you have to compete with North Carolina.

Better still, you have to beat Carolina.

Not every year, and not every game, perhaps, but if you're the UK coach, you have to beat the Heels, who visit Rupp Arena on Saturday.

You have to beat them in recruiting off the floor. And you have to beat them in points on the floor. Not every time. But you have to beat them enough times to make it competitive.

The reason: At this date in college hoops history, North Carolina is the sport's gold standard.

Yes, Kentucky has more titles. Kentucky has more wins. Kentucky might hold off the Heels and claim the (pseudo) honor of being the first program with 2,000 victories. Doesn't matter.

In the past five years under Roy Williams, North Carolina has been to three Final Fours and won two national championships.

And with this year's freshman class, plus the arrival next year of top prospect Harrison Barnes, Blue Heaven is gearing up for a run at another title.

Consider that after the defending national champs lost the likes of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough, most figured it would be a rebuilding year in Chapel Hill. Then the Tar Heels pounded Michigan State on Tuesday night in the Dean Dome. Trite but true: UNC doesn't rebuild as much as it reloads.

That's the sort of excellence Kentucky hasn't been able to sustain since its last Final Four trip, and last national title, back in 1998.

That's why, after going the next-big-thing route in hiring Billy Gillispie (with near-disastrous results), Kentucky went with the big thing this time around.

There are few bigger right now than Calipari. He doesn't have a championship (not yet) like a Williams or a Jim Calhoun or a Mike Krzyzewski, or even a Pitino. He might not be the X-and-O coach that is Tom Izzo, but then who out there is? Calipari might rub some in the sport the wrong way. But he has the personality, the offense and the know-how to get talent.

Who else could have taken the Kentucky job on April 1 and signed the nation's top recruiting class a little over a month later?

Who else could have persuaded Patrick Patterson to stay in school, persuaded Daniel Orton to keep his name on the dotted line and persuaded DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall to make a detour from Memphis to Lexington?

Name another coach who could have stepped onto the UK campus and made the Cats instantly competitive with the program atop the college basketball pedestal?

Plus, give his school's rabid fan base the belief that they will be back atop that pedestal, and soon?

By the way, it's no small thing that Kentucky has lost five straight to the Tar Heels, and the last three weren't all that competitive.

To get back to being the best, you have to beat the best.

That's why UK hired John Calipari.

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