KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WDRB) — This is the season where John Calipari has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that he can coach the University of Kentucky basketball team to the brink of the NCAA Final Four with his Plan B team.
There’s no John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins. No Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. No Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker.
Nobody guaranteed to be the best player every time Kentucky is on the court.
Nobody listed among the Top 12 prospects for the 2019 NBA Draft by ESPN.com.
“He's got kids that care less about themselves and more about the team,” said Bruce Pearl, who’ll coach Auburn against UK in the Midwest Regional final Sunday at 2:20 p.m. (EDT) in the Sprint Center. A victory will lead to a Final Four game against Virginia on Saturday.
“He’s probably enjoyed coaching this team more. And I think this team has been blessed more because of the way they played, how hard they played. They bought in defensively, they play unselfishly, play the game the right way.”
You heard the whispers that Calipari lost his fastball or at least his magic recruiting dust.
Whiffed on Zion Williamson. Whiffed on R.J. Barrett. Whiffed on Bol Bol. Either lost or passed on Romeo Langford, Louis King and others.
Now here is Calipari, 30 victories deep into the season where his squad did not win the Southeastern Conference regular-season or SEC tournament title. All the coach and his team must do to crash the Final Four is defeat an Auburn team the Wildcats have already defeated twice (the last time by 27 points).
“Every day, whatever we challenged them with, they were fine,” Calipari said. “Never have gotten too high, never too low.
“This has been one of those years that, you go through one of these years you think you can coach another 20. Then you go through other years and you say, ‘Why am I doing this? This is crazy.’
“But this is, you know, this is a good group.”
The wise guys in Las Vegas expect the Wildcats to deliver by 4 1/2 points. That is a reasonable projection considering Auburn will be without Chuma Okeke, the Tigers’ most powerful inside player. Okeke had 20 points and 11 rebounds against North Carolina Friday night.
Is this Calipari’s finest coaching job?
How do you measure and then prove this is better work than Calipari delivered in 2012 (national title) 2014 (surprising Final Four run) or 2015 (38 straight victories)?
I’ve covered the NCAA Tournament for more than four decades. I can’t do that. Maybe you can.
Pearl and Calipari have often clashed, but this is what Pearl said he has seen while looking at the Wildcats:
“I don’t mind saying this: John has been a master of taking incredibly talented kids who maybe had -- because they were so talented, think in an individual way, he had a job to blend that team in his locker room, egos, different things like that.
“Keldon Johnson cares about winning. So does Ashton Hagans, so does PJ. That whole team has bought into one thing, and that's winning.”
I’ll give Calipari extra credit for not letting the Wildcats’ brutally non-competitive, season-opening 34-point loss to Duke define the Kentucky season.
While skeptics dwelled upon how the Wildcats were outclassed by a collection of recruits that Mike Krzyzewski took from Calipari, Kentucky continued to grind.
The Wildcats also lost their Southeastern Conference opener to an Alabama team that got its coach dismissed by losing in the first round of the NIT.
They played the last two-plus weeks of the regular season without power forward Reid Travis and the first two games of the NCAA Tournament without Mr. Everything PJ Washington.
Here they are, favored to take their season into April.
What I can say is this is the season Calipari showed that he can deliver with Plan B. A season where the coach proved that he can audible. A stretch where the coach demonstrated he can mix and match.
I’m not arguing that he did not have his recruiting scores. Pearl quickly swatted down that narrative.
When Calipari lost Williamson, Bol and Barrett, he pursued prospects that other programs prioritized at the top of their recruiting lists.
Two — guard Ashton Hagans and forward E.J. Montgomery — were guys that received their first Power Five scholarship offers from Pearl. Montgomery had given the Tigers an oral commitment, similar to the oral commitment UK guard Tyler Herro gave Wisconsin.
Calipari made it work. He made it work by taking Reid Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford who became an ideal fit. He earned a break when Washington chose to return for his sophomore season instead of settling for a spot in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft.
But remember: Washington is this team’s best player — and nobody has compared his pro potential to Wall, Cousins, Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle, Towns, Booker, Jamal Murray or others who have moved through Calipari’s program since he arrived in 2010.
“They’re a pleasure to coach,” Calipari said. “I told them they added years to my life coaching this team.:”
His best coaching job at Kentucky?
I can’t make that call. But it has certainly been a season where John Calipari has made it work with Plan B.
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