It’s February now and college basketball is starting to heat up. The last couple of weeks of the regular season are always crucial to any team with national title aspirations. Ultimately, it will be a final tune-up of sorts heading into the NCAA tournament. Looking further ahead, a national championship game is about two months away, and one person who understands the importance of being a participant in that game, moreso than anyone, is John Calipari. The next couple of months will be nothing less than career defining for the Kentucky coach, and here’s why.
Calipari undoubtedly has the best team in the nation, a gift and a curse. With the unquestioned best team in the country, expectations are, at least, to be one of the two teams battling to raise a national championship banner. That alone is pressure enough for anyone, but to add to the heaviness of Calipari’s burden, he has yet to stand on the mountain top of college basketball. Fair or not, the position of head coach is defined by how many banners you hoist. To be considered a top coach in the college basketball world you have to win a national title. That’s just the nature of the beast.
In his third year at Kentucky, Calipari might have found the perfect blend for what it takes, in his style of recruiting, to finally get the national championship monkey off of his back.
His first team at Kentucky, a team that sent an NBA record five players to the first round of the draft, certainly didn’t lack talent. This team was clearly one of the best teams in the nation, but was eventually outdone by a Bob Huggins-led West Virginia team with more experience. His second team, stripped of talent by the NCAA, surprised a lot of people by making a final four run in an extremely tough bracket. A number of times this team came back after halftime deficits or found a way to win close in late game situations. That team certainly did not lack heart.
The current team is a perfect blend of both. They have the talent of the first team; a presumed number one overall draft pick in Anthony Davis (John Wall), and if all major contributors on this team decided to leave, about five 2012 NBA first round picks. To go along with the talent, this team has an abundance of heart, and you sense it when they take the floor. They exude a championship or bust mentality which is part of the formula to win it all. They want to prove that they are better than everyone else in the country while possessing superior talent to any possible opposition. It’s a lethal combination.
The best thing to happen to Calipari’s career might have been the poor performance of Terrence Jones at the end of last season. It forced Jones to forego a NBA career for at least a season and return to Lexington to work on his game. In the last ten games of Jones’ freshman year he only reached his season average of 15.6 ppg three times. Among those three times not one of them came in the NCAA tournament. Still, he and Doron Lamb returned with experience and stability of premiere players that any team with serious national title dreams desperately needs.
As the Wildcats head into the home stretch of the SEC schedule, they seem to have hit a stride. Calipari will certainly bring the best coaching performance of his career with him to finish what could be a magical season, but he might not need it. This team has everything it needs to finish strong, but most importantly they have the will to be a champion. The young Wildcats want to win as bad as their head coach needs to win, and it shows. Barring any unforeseen circumstances it looks like the third time, at Kentucky, will be the charm for John Calipari.