LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Once you reach the NCAA championship game, the year has been a success. No matter how old or young, no matter what you were rated in the preseason, or coming into the tournament, no matter what happened in the regular season.
Once you reach the title game, you've passed your final exam. The only question is whether you finish with an A or an A-plus.
The University of Kentucky basketball team accomplished a couple of things beyond the obvious when it won three straight classics to reach the NCAA title game, where it fell to Connecticut 60-54 on Monday night.
First, it changed the conversation. This was a team that had underachieved during the regular season. It embraced its own hype before the season, and coach John Calipari, who fanned the hype as much as anyone, had considerable trouble getting his players to let go of it.
This wasn't a virtuoso season for Calipari. He took some heat in February, but no more heat, honestly, than any other coach with a preseason No. 1 that was slipping away. Calipari accepted his share of the criticism, especially once the team managed to head back in the right direction.
But there were reasons behind the struggles. Nobody coaches a perfect season. How do you think Kevin Ollie's season at UConn would've gone down in Lexington?
Calipari was dealing with hip problems. He wasn't getting the right sleep. He tried to take pain medication, but then stopped because he didn't feel right.
He made wrong moves and right ones. He begged off media obligations and got kicked out of a game.
He also kept the players on the bus. He kept them engaged. For a group that could easily have checked out, and may have been perilously close several times, it never did. He was able to sell them on something, self-preservation, or pride, or draft prospects, or something.
Regardless, in the end, Calipari pressed the right buttons. Whatever the "tweak" was, it saved the season. Maybe that was more Calipari showmanship. It certainly turned the story back toward the coach and away from the talent of the roster. Whatever the case, Louisville could've won a national championship, if not for Kentucky. Wichita State probably could've won a national championship, if not for Kentucky. Michigan could've won a national championship, if not for Kentucky.
The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, went from question marks early in the season to the backbone of the team late. Dakari Johnson blossomed. James Young played his biggest games in the team's biggest games. Alex Poythress became a clutch player. Julius Randle was one of the top players in the nation. Willie Cauley-Stein's injury might've cost UK the national title. Hard to say. Connecticut played well in the title game.
The championship game was not typical UK. The Harrisons were off. Julius Randle cramped up near the beginning of the game and never was quite himself. The Wildcats were the slower team, and it showed.
Calipari didn't do his best job in the title game. He needed only to watch UConn's three losses to Louisville to see that moderate pressure picking up before midcourt could frustrate the Huskies. The end-game strategy was confusing. Fouling to get a deadball to call a timeout, then fouling again at the end of the subsequent possession.
Calipari had three timeouts he never used. Instead of lengthening the game at the end, UK let it slip away. After three straight games of perfect end-game execution and coaching, this time, little went right. There's plenty of blame to go around, but after fighting to a shot at the NCAA championship, that blame should be muted. The final grade is set. And it's a high one.
Realistically speaking, Connecticut was not going to give that game away at the free throw line. Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan and Wisconsin all missed big shots at the end. Connecticut executed better than those in the end-game.
Sometimes the other guys win. I know people will slam Calipari out of an abundance of desire to do so, and it wasn't his best performance, but you can't take away from what Connecticut did.
The other thing this UK group did, besides rewrite the narrative on this season, was to set a precedent.
It's unlikely anyone will remember the lesson of this season, but maybe they will. You never bury a team, especially not one with talent. When things go badly for future groups of freshmen in Lexington, this will be the team they point to. Remember what happened in 2014. There's always hope. There's always a chance, if you stick together.
Before Monday's game, Rex Chapman Tweeted that Calipari, win or lose, is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers, "done deal."
Had it not been Chapman who Tweeted this, it would've come and gone. But Chapman is well connected both at UK and in the NBA. And he doesn't do things lightly. He knew the sensation that would cause, and put it out there anyway.
Several things. First, Chapman's Tweet had no impact on the game. If players were allowed to be on Twitter that close to the beginning of the national championship game, there are bigger problems than what he Tweets out.
Second, I have zero doubt that Chapman was given that information by a credible source. The problem is, we don't know who the source is, so there's no way to judge its merit, or motive. I suspect there may have been an ulterior motive on the part of the source, knowing that Chapman would go public with what he was given, since Chapman is one of the most outspoken Twitter personalities in Big Blue Nation.
Third, that single Tweet, from a source no one knew, wagged the media's coverage of the biggest college basketball game of the season. I don't blame anyone. How do you ignore such speculation. But in the end, that's all it was, speculation. It was a single Tweet, from an anonymous source given by a former player, yet it was elevated to legitimate news story by news organizations covering themselves to get out in front of a big story — just in case it happened.
I don't know how you don't follow up that story. Everyone has jobs to do. But it's one reason mainstream media don't carry any more weight than the blogosphere anymore. If one guy can Tweet one thing from an anonymous source and the media pick it up and run, how are the two entities any different.
For once, I'm glad I wasn't at the Final Four. Why dignify that speculation with coverage, unless someone wants to say something on the record? It may well be right, but if it isn't, credibility is squandered, and the media pack sinks even more in the pubic's estimation.
I hope Calipari stays. Physically, I think the NBA is too much of a grind for a guy coming off hip replacement surgery, if he undergoes it. From the standpoint of talent matching circumstance, Calipari is exactly where he needs to be. There's no job in sports for which he is more suited.
John Calipari now ranks fifth in NCAA Tournament winning percentage among active coaches with at least 15 tournament wins. And that's without the wins he earned at Massachusetts and Memphis that were vacated by the NCAA. He's eighth overall in tournament wins, and is closing quickly on Billy Donovan and Bill Self.
Calipari came up through the ranks without the benefit of a brand-name program. Now, he's at the biggest brand-name basketball program in college basketball, and he's excelling. There's no reason, other than personal preference or rigors of the position, to walk away from that. You have to respect a hot streak. Three Final Fours in four years is a hot streak. He should stay.
As for which players will stay, I'm assuming that the number with NBA options increased during the course of their tournament run. Julius Randle, it's believed, is gone. James Young the same, and perhaps Willie Cauley-Stein, though that's not a given. Whether the Harrison twins return will be up to what they hear form NBA officials. The same with Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson.
There will be time for all of that. For now, it's enough to appreciate the run this young team fashioned, the big games it won at the end, and the surprise ending it gave to its season. Spoiler alert — it wasn't in obscurity that this highly-regarded team finished. It was one step from the summit.
Calipari said, "We nearly ran out of runway," when talking about getting his team off the ground. But once aloft, the Wildcats did everything but nail the landing.