The Final Four isn’t just about the games. Honors are handed out here, lots of them, and a coach who had never been deemed the best in a season by perhaps the most significant source took home the top individual honor Friday.
Kentucky’s John Calipari was voted Associated Press coach of the year.
Throughout his career at Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky, Calipari accumulated some hardware, but AP coach of the year, voted on by media members, suggests a change in the perception of Calipari.
What is certain is nobody in college basketball has processed the NBA age limit that the colleges are forced to swallow better than Coach Cal, and there is a growing appreciation for how he gets it done.
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Teenage talent streams into Lexington, Ky., and Calipari has managed the egos and demands by creating an environment without egos and demands.
Players who arrive with the idea of spending only one year in college must be the most difficult to motivate. They’re not building a college career. They’re looking not to hurt their portfolio playing before NBA scouts every game.
But Calipari, and especially this season, has created a remarkable environment. Freshmen and upperclassmen not only mesh but have bought into the idea that playing defense is a virtue.
Defending with enthusiasm and purpose is the surest sign of engagement, and nobody in college basketball operates at a higher level than Kentucky, which faces Wisconsin in Saturday’s second national semifinal.
With few exceptions, like Notre Dame in last week’s regional final, teams are next to helpless against the Wildcats’ defense. West Virginia scored 39 in an NCAA Tournament game. Fifteen opponents have been held to fewer than 50 points.
Others that land one-and-done players like Duke, Kansas and Texas haven’t mastered the chemistry like Calipari’s Kentucky, which is appearing in its fourth Final Four in five years.
This year’s Blue Devils, with three freshman starters led by Jahlil Okafor, have come closest. But Duke was a first-game loser last year with Jabari Parker. The Jayhawks haven’t gotten out of the first weekend with teams that included a one-and-done. (Ben McLemore was in the program for two years.)
Kentucky, with freshman Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns as the second and third leading scorers, hasn’t lost. The 38-0 record has never happened in college basketball. Two more and Kentucky will be the game’s most perfect team.
If that happens, the conclusion that Kentucky exists on a different level will have merit, and it’s because Calipari speaks to today’s star prospects in a language they understand better than any other coach.
“I’m helping these kids reach their drams,” Calipari said. “Their dreams are my dreams. I sit on the same side of the table with them and their families.”
There’s something else about Calipari. His greatest teams at Massachusetts with Marcus Camby and Memphis with Derrick Rose, which reached the Final Four, were found to have committed enough NCAA wrongdoing to be stripped of their participation in the record book. Officially, “vacated” lost to Kansas for the 2008 championship.
It left Calipari with a less-than-stellar reputation. His gray areas crossed the line, and those who take their coach of the year hardware seriously made sure Calipari didn’t get his hands on it.
Friday, he was asked about his perception, and his gut reaction was a bit snippy. “I’m the same guy I’ve always been.”
Then, “Well, not really.”
Same heart, approach and friends as always.
“Hopefully, I’ve matured and grown up a little bit,” Calipari said.
He’s grown into a coach who handles today’s athletes and the NBA’s age limit without peer.