CRAWFORD | Calipari still underrated in X-and-O debate
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's the same old story with John Calipari. Great recruiter. Best recruiter in the game. Maybe the best recruiter ever in the college game. But a great coach?
His colleagues, around 250 of them, ranked college basketball's coaches on Xs and Os for ESPN's Jeff Goodman this week, and Calipari came out ranked No. 16 in the nation.
It is, in essence, the same Calipari critique that comes every year. He got a bit of a break after winning the NCAA Championship in 2012 with a team that was as brilliant a half-court offensive team as college basketball has seen in some time. But now the insinuations are back, and frankly, they are tired.
When the Calipari X-and-O critics fire up, I always think of the 2008 Final Four. On the eve of Calipari's Memphis team's game against UCLA in a national semifinal, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Calipari didn't belong on the same sideline as UCLA's Ben Howland. That it was a coaching mismatch.
Calipari responded gracefully. "Come on," he told a press conference. "Ben isn't that bad."
Turns out, Calipari won that game by 15. Yes, he brought in a bunch of players with inner-city backgrounds. But they were disciplined, and worked hard. They shared the ball and got to the rim. And they had fun. Afterward, I wrote a column asking, "Is it OK now for us all to admit that this guy can coach?"
Apparently it wasn't. It got plenty of reaction, including from University of Kentucky fans, who I doubt would say some of the same things today they said back then.
In some ways, the question itself is suspect. In reality, at that level, everybody in the game is a good X-and-O coach. They all have good schemes, if they've been in the business for anytime at all. The guys ahead of Calipari on ESPN's list all know their stuff. But there's no inner rocket-science to drawing up basketball plays. And if you're telling me that there are 15 better coaches -- and yes, I'm saying on the bench -- in college basketball, I disagree. And I'm about to tell you why.
To a degree, Calipari has been a victim of his recruiting success in this discussion, and of his own unwillingness to make the game more complicated than it really is.
Just because you have great players doesn't mean you roll the ball out there and win games. Some games you might, but most games you can't.
Calipari has added a level of difficulty with the roster turnaround he faces every season. You have a short preseason, maybe some summer work, and then you have to start the team playing together. You experiment as you go. It's trial and error, much of the time. And not just with the X-and-O stuff, but with team chemistry. It all has to be built on the fly.
The dribble-drive, for which Calipari was known when he came to UK, has rarely been his weapon of choice in Lexington. When you find you can recruit the best big men the game has to offer, you tailor your teams to take advantage of them. He will make small moves that pay big dividends.
Everybody points to the 2012 championship team as one that many coaches could've taken and won a title with. We don't know that. We do know Calipari did it.
But almost everybody forgets the 2011 Final Four. That year, Calipari had a team made up of Brandon Knight and a bunch of spare parts. Terrence Jones was a talented freshman. DeAndre Liggins was dogged on defense. Darius Miller was starting to find his way. Josh Harrellson? Say what you will, he was not on an NBA trajectory when Calipari found him. In the NCAA Tournament, he simply outplayed one highly touted big man after another.
It was a good team, but not a great one, that Calipari took to his first UK Final Four. But it showed his ability to bring a team along, to develop individual players, and yes, to utilize scheme to win basketball games.
Last season was difficult by every measure. But he moved and cajoled and prodded players till the end. Several times, he pressed the reset button on what he wanted to do. Nothing seemed to work just right.
He says the experience changed him. He has come back this season with a deeper roster and a determination to play more aggressive pressure defense, to raise the tempo of games and take advantage of his talent and numbers.
It would be yet another change in style for a coach who has shown he can adjust and adapt to his personnel.
Before SEC media day in 2012, Frank Martin said, "I think Cal is one of the great misunderstood people in the profession. . . . He doesn't get enough credit for coaching."
There are some things Calipari doesn't do. He doesn't subject players to marathon practices. He doesn't keep them in the film room for hours on end looking over video.
Calipari, in most games, will make adjustments that you come away thinking were the right ones, and made sense. He finds ways to get his best players onto the court in the right combinations. That they happen to be some of the most talented players in the nation is secondary.
This narrative that Calipari is somehow second-class as a game coach is played out.
The fact is, all these coaches mentioned can draw up a play. I watched Mike Krzyzewski draw up plays during dead balls -- without a timeout -- and his team ran them, during the NCAA Tournament last season.
Everybody knows the game. But last season notwithstanding, there aren't 10 better coaches on the sideline right now than Calipari. I've been saying it since 2008. Maybe one of these days, people will believe. But I won't hold my breath.
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