John Clay

Should John Calipari have more than one NCAA title? It's complicated.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari held the trophy after the Cats defeated Kansas in the 2012 NCAA championship game.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari held the trophy after the Cats defeated Kansas in the 2012 NCAA championship game. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Right there in the middle of Thursday night’s 2018 NBA Draft, up popped the following tweet from Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel:

“John Calipari has coached 26 first-round picks at Kentucky since arriving in 2009. Same number as Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007. (National Titles: Saban 5-1).”

It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, however. College football players must wait three years before they can enter the NFL Draft. Teams can build through experience. College basketball players must wait just one. The best are gone after that. And for Calipari, 23 of those 26 first-round picks have been one-and-done.

Still, the draft stat does bring up an interesting question: Given all those picks — a grand total of 35 at Kentucky — shouldn’t John Calipari have more than one title?

Well, yes, but it isn’t that simple.

First of all, winning a national title is hard. Over 350 schools play Division I basketball. Sixty-eight are selected for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Only one team can win the title. Only one coach gets the ring.

And the champion is not always the best team. That’s the nature of the sport and its tournament. You must have talent, yes. But you have to be healthy. And you have to be lucky.

During his nine years at Kentucky, you can make the case Calipari has had the best team three times. His 2009-10 team was title-worthy but lost to West Virginia in the East Region finals. His 2011-12 club was the best and proved it, going 38-2, beating first Louisville and Kansas in the Final Four for the school’s eighth national title and Calipari’s first.

He should have won his second in 2014-15. That club boasted Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, the Harrison twins. It was so deep, Calipari employed a platoon system. It won a school-record 38 straight games. And it couldn’t close the deal. Those three consecutive second-half shot clock violations in the national semifinals will forever live in Big Blue Nation nightmares. Wisconsin extracted revenge for its Final Four loss to UK the year before. Kentucky finished 38-1.

The Cats haven’t reached the Final Four since. A flawed 2015-16 team lost to Indiana in the NCAA’s Round of 32. A worthy 2016-17 team came up short against eventual national champ North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Last season, short on experience even by Calipari standards, UK couldn’t get past Kansas State in the Sweet 16.

Critics claim Cal can’t win the big one. His 1996 UMass team, a No. 1 seed, lost to Rick Pitino and Kentucky in the Final Four. His 2008 Memphis team, a No. 1 seed, blew a nine-point lead with two minutes left and lost to Kansas in overtime in the national championship game.

Memphis was led by Derrick Rose, another one-and-done star. Such is the Calipari conundrum. It’s his style, his strategy. Given a choice between talent and experience, he’ll take talent every time.

That means he’s always threading the needle. Calipari’s recruiting pitch is largely (completely?) based not just on his ability to get players to the NBA, but to make them high NBA Draft picks. For 11 straight years now, he’s produced a top-10 pick. As for national titles, with so many one-and-dones, Calipari has just one year to get it done. Then he starts all over again.

Don’t be fooled. Nick Saban is a great coach. He has the rings to prove it. Outside of UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, Saban might be the best coach in all of college sports, maybe the best of all time. And that’s another apples-to-oranges comparison.

And don’t be fooled into thinking Kentucky fans don’t care about titles. That their favorites achieve their NBA dreams is nice, but the BBN wants banners. Given the advantages the program possesses in tradition, resources and support, winning the national title is a reasonable expectation.

Calipari is smart enough to know this and sense the fan base is growing a tad restless. Consider a Friday tweet from the UK men’s basketball account about the draft began with, “We do what we do to win championships.”

At Kentucky, that’s what it’s about.

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