When he walked off the floor of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse back on Nov. 6, having been Zion-ized by the Duke Blue Devils to the jackhammer sound of 34 points, John Calipari looked like he had just seen a ghost.
Nearly five months later, the Kentucky basketball coach can’t stop smiling. Cal was in an unexpected good mood last week in Jacksonville, Fla., even as his top scorer and rebounder sat the bench with a cast on his left foot. Cal has been grinning this week in the Barbecue Capital of the World, even when it wasn’t known if PJ Washington could return, much less star for the Cats. (He did both.)
Late Friday night, after Kentucky had held off Houston 62-58 in the Midwest Region semifinals, Calipari was walking with aides down the hallway of the Sprint Center to his press conference when he was overheard exclaiming, “Wow!”
Wow, indeed. Five months after the season began with his team being pounded into to the floor in Indianapolis, Kentucky sits one victory shy of Calipari’s fifth Final Four in his 10 years as the headmaster of the “greatest tradition in college basketball history,” as the saying goes.
Not that it will be easy, mind you. Kentucky’s foe for the Midwest Region finals is fellow SEC member Auburn. Not just Auburn, but red-hot Auburn. Not just red-hot Auburn, but five-alarm fire Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have won 11 straight since their own soul-searcher, an 80-53 drubbing in Rupp Arena on Feb. 23. The Tigers have trounced Tennessee (by 20), carved up Kansas (up 26 at halftime) and sprinted past North Carolina (by 17).
Still, it just so happens that Planet Comicon is going on in downtown K.C., the city streets teeming with people dressed as comic book characters and superheroes. And it’s not too much of a stretch to see Kentucky’s season as a graphic novel full of plot twists.
There was a case of PDTS, post-Duke trauma syndrome. After a Big Apple blunder of an overtime loss to Seton Hall, sophomore guard Quade Green asked for a transfer. A knee sprain kept Reid Travis out of five mid-February games. Then, just after an SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee, came news of Washington’s now famous sprained foot.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” said UK guard Keldon Johnson on Saturday, “but we stuck together.”
And here they are, right smack where we believed they could be after the sneak-peek Bahamas blast of an exhibition trip when Calipari’s mixture of a grad transfer (Travis), holdovers and the influx of usual suspects, i.e. NBA Draft-worthy freshmen, showed such promise.
“When we’re a complete team, we’re special,” Travis said after the win over Houston, and he’s not normally one to grab the horn and blow.
That confidence has a backstory. Kentucky is 2-0 this season against Auburn. And Calipari is 4-2 in Elite Eights at UK. Two years ago, Luke Maye’s buzzer-beater sent the Cats home and UNC on to the national title. Ten years ago, Kentucky was suddenly the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and West Virginia reached the Final Four.
Meanwhile, Auburn owns the fastest guns in the wild, wild Midwest. Their game remains a three-for-all. In seven postseason games, 53.7 percent of their shots have come from beyond the arc. And they’ve hit 42.9 percent of those shots. “They’re playing out of their minds right now,” said Calipari on Saturday.
How the loss of forward Chuma Okeke, who tore an ACL in the win over North Carolina, will affect Auburn’s minds is another question. Just as there is the question of whether, after just one day’s rest, Washington can be as productive Sunday as he was Friday, scoring 16 points in 26 minutes.
But back to the question of the Calipari grin. When asked Saturday, the coach claimed he was “miserable” before reversing field to say that this is what you practice for, play for and coach for — to be in this position with this team in March.
“This team,” said Calipari, “has added years to my life.”
Now we’ll see if it can add (at least) one more game.