CRAWFORD | Calipari should probably just leave Kentucky's Wisconsin wounds alone
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Even as time begins to go to work on the wounds from Wisconsin’s 71-64 upset of unbeaten Kentucky in the NCAA semifinals last April, John Calipari keeps ripping off the bandage.
We all know the story of what will go down as one of the more painful losses in program history. But all summer, Calipari has been adding to it. First, he acknowledged that, yes, maybe his team might’ve benefited from a regular-season loss. Rip. Later, he said some of his players seemed relieved after the loss. Rip. With each revelation came some Twitter clarification.
The latest installment came Sunday, in front of a coaches clinic in Los Angeles, with remarks reported by USA Today. This time, Calipari intimated that you can lay that loss at the feet of his loyalty to Aaron and Andrew Harrison. Rip.
“Now you may say, ‘Why didn’t you have Tyler (Ulis) and Devin (Booker) in at the end of the Wisconsin game? You probably would have won,” Calipari told the crowd, as quoted by USA Today. “Because I was being loyal to those other two who led us to a championship game a year ago and they deserve to be on that court. That’s why I did it. I knew who was playing well and who was struggling. You think I wasn’t sitting there watching? But I owed it to those two to do it.”
Once USA Today published its story, Calipari quickly took to Twitter, in a series of posts, to clarify, “Let me make this clear: The twins dragged us to a Final 4 in 2014 & led us to 38 straight wins & a Final 4 in 2015. I LOVED coaching them. It never entered my mind to sub those two in that game or any other game late. Those two had come through for two years in critical moments. My loyalty was based on results.”
But why bring the Harrisons back into it at all? It seems Calipari’s second-guessers are still nagging him. You can say he should’ve gone a different direction with his guards all you want, but can you imagine how much heat he’d have taken if he took Aaron Harrison, one of the great clutch shooters in NCAA Tournament history, off the court at the end of a tight game in the Final Four? He doesn’t have to defend playing Aaron Harrison.
Anyway, it was less Calipari’s standing by the Harrisons than his clinging to his preferred pace of play that cost Kentucky the past two seasons.
I’ve written in this space, his unwillingness to have his teams play at a faster tempo likely has cost him not one, but two wins in the Final Four, one of them a title game — maybe even two titles. Given Kentucky’s superior talent in each of its last two Final Four games, it should’ve been pressing the pace, forcing Wisconsin and UConn to play faster than they wanted instead of sitting back and letting those teams dictate tempo.
The Wildcats let inferior teams stick around all last season. It finally caught up with them.
As for the Harrisons, they came to UK as projected lottery picks, but they left outside the first round. Aaron Harrison was the first early entrant from UK under Calipari to go undrafted, though he has signed with Charlotte. Their careers at UK are some of the most complicated to characterize of the Calipari era. They don’t in any way fit the mold of most players Calipari has brought to Lexington. I’m all for leaving them alone.
And that’s probably what Calipari should do with his team’s 2015 season. He’s like a guy with a Ferrari that has a bashed in bumper. No amount of polishing fixes that bumper.
In making the point that a 38-0 start was in some ways more memorable than a national championship, Calipari told the coaches: “At the end of the day, I just ask you this, ‘Who won the national title three years ago? Two years ago? Six years ago?”
The coaches in that crowd must not have been Basketball Bennies. They were silent.
Let us pause to look at the calendar. It is now September of 2015. Three years ago, September of 2012, the reigning NCAA basketball champion was the University of Kentucky. I think folks remember that around here. I don’t consider that a forgettable thing. There’s a great big banner in Rupp Arena. Look up the next time you’re there, you can’t miss it. This time three years ago, Calipari was still Tweeting selfies with the trophy. Without that win, Calipari isn’t inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame a few weeks back.
Of course, this also might’ve been a subtle, or not-so-subtle, dig at the University of Louisville, which won the title three seasons ago, in 2013. Good luck trying to forget that. You can’t unsee that image of Rick Pitino’s back tattoo.
Whatever the case, the repeated notion that a national championship is somehow to be less valued is one that just isn’t going to sell here. It’s like trying to peddle non-alcoholic bourbon. You can drink it if you want, but it’s not going to do much for you, and Kentuckians aren’t likely to appreciate it.
We all acknowledge the importance of players being drafted, developing their basketball skills and character, learning sacrifice and teamwork. But that happens all over the place. It happened with players at Duke, last year, too, and they also won a championship. The aims aren’t mutually exclusive.
Lest anyone forget.
Yes, last season’s UK team is memorable for winning its first 38 games. But it will also be remembered, unfortunately, for losing its last. As many people will remember the 1 as remember the 38. And it’s time to give Wisconsin a little more credit in this whole deal. More on that in a bit.
I think Calipari is saying what he feels like he has to say, what any coach would say, maybe, to take the positive from what was, undeniably, a great season. That’s what coaches do. Maybe he thinks he’s making it easier for Kentucky fans to swallow.
I don’t think he is. This past summer, I talked to one UK fan who I won’t “out” publicly. This is a guy who has given a lot of money to the program, who travels to road games. He’s not your average fan, but his passion for the program is probably very well indicative with the mainstream of Big Blue Nation. He admitted to Rick Bozich and me that sometimes he wakes up at 2 a.m., still shaken and angry that UK lost that game.
I don’t think Calipari’s continued comments are helping that guy sleep any better at night. There’s no way to spin this thing to make it more attractive than 40-0 would have been, nor can you erase that “1” after the 38 straight from the public’s memory bank. But Calipari is trying.
“Twenty years from now, they’re going to say, what team did that 38 and 0 at the start of the season? You’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s Kentucky,’” Calipari told the coaches.
What Calipari didn’t ask the crowd, but a question it likely would also have been able to answer in short order, was, “What team beat Kentucky when it was 38-0.”
Wisconsin is the missing piece in all this. Why can’t anyone just say Wisconsin had a great team, played better that night, and be done with it? Instead, Wisconsin is disrespected by Andrew Harrison after the game with his comment about Frank Kaminsky, and now has to listen to Calipari talk about how his players were pressured by the win streak, or that his team might’ve benefited from a loss heading into the Final Four, or that loyalty to the Harrisons might've compromised its chances.
Kentucky fans are getting over it, or trying to, most of them. They’re camping out for Midnight Madness tickets and they’re fine with their coach and their teams. They know basketball. They’ve been sold a lot of fluff over the years by multiple coaches, but they know what’s what when it comes to the game. And besides, when you’re always coming back with a top-ranked recruiting class and a team that could get back to the Final Four again, hope is a stronger message than history. It certainly makes it easier to sleep at night.
So there’s no need for the continued attempts to edit the historical record. Calipari had a great team. It came up short. Wisconsin also had a great team. It was better that night. There’s not much more to say.
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