John Calipari is arguably the most successful Kentucky basketball coach since Adolph Rupp. After all, in his eight-plus seasons, Calipari has been to four Final Fours, six Elite Eights and won a national title.
If the Cats do what the seedings suggest this week at the NCAA Tournament’s South Region — No. 5 UK being the highest seeded team of the remaining four — and reach the Final Four in San Antonio, you can remove the “arguably” qualification.
I know, I know, that hasn’t happened yet. Don’t count your Final Four berths before they hatch. I was the one who wrote that Kentucky’s task in Atlanta is tougher than you might think. Kansas State can defend. Nevada can score. Loyola Chicago has a 98-year-old nun and good luck charm on its side.
And yes, as we have been reminded, Kentucky has enjoyed an easy path to Philips Arena. Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1985, this is the first regional semifinals without a No. 4 seed or higher. Should the Cats cut down the nets Saturday, UK’s trip to the Final Four would be the easiest, via seeds, in the history of the event.
Doesn’t matter. Look at where this Kentucky basketball team was a month ago, stuck in a four-game losing streak. It was 17-9 overall, 6-7 in the SEC and in definite danger of slipping to the NIT. Somehow, Calipari turned it around.
And though the coach is hesitant to mention this (we kid), UK starts five freshmen. After the 95-75 win over Buffalo on Saturday in Boise, Idaho, Calipari said this was his most rewarding season in coaching. Cal says a lot of things, as we know, but you had the feeling there was at least a kernel of truth in the hyperbole.
Now, a Final Four is there for the taking.
And while it is entirely capable of losing, this is Kentucky’s regional to lose. Not making it to San Antonio would be a disappointment. Making it would add another scene to the Calipari highlight reel.
On the ladder of Kentucky hoops coaches, would it push him past Rick Pitino? I say yes.
No matter your thoughts on the man now — on how he crashed and burned at Louisville — Pitino did a spectacular job rescuing UK from the depths of an NCAA probation to a national title in 1996. He made Kentucky basketball fun again. And he won — three Final Fours and a title in six NCAA eligible seasons.
Pitino left, however. That’s not to blame him for grabbing Boston’s NBA paycheck, but Pitino’s departure robbed us of seeing if he could sustain. It robbed us of what might have been. Maybe he could. The players he recruited won the ’98 title for Tubby Smith. Maybe he couldn’t. We’ll never know.
Joe B. Hall deserves a place in this conversation. Hall had the unenviable task of following Rupp. The love Joe enjoys now from Big Blue Nation wasn’t all that evident back then. Hall integrated and modernized the program. He coached Kentucky to three Final Fours, two title games and won it all in 1978.
In fact, with the exception of the brief, troubled tenures of Eddie Sutton (1985-89) and Billy Gillispie (2007-2009), every Kentucky coach since Rupp has won a national title. Rupp won four. He was “The Baron” who built it.
Even now, you could put Calipari’s name above the others, right below Rupp. His success has been remarkable, but also the way he has achieved it, recruiting class after class of one-and-done freshmen and molding them into teams that play their best basketball at the end of the year.
And so here he is again, with an unlikely contender, a team that wasn’t even ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 three of the last five weeks of the season, a team that plays seven freshmen and two sophomores. It’s a team that now needs two wins over lower seeds to reach the Final Four and strengthen the Calipari case. Again.
Kentucky vs. Kansas State
What: NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal
When: About 9:37 p.m.
Where: Philips Arena in Atlanta