Despite being asked several times to comment on what tomorrow’s game means for his legacy, Coach Cal wouldn’t say much more than he hasn’t thought about it and has instead focused on getting the team ready and doing right by his players. After the game would be the time for paying attention to all that stuff, but for now it’s just time to play a basketball game. He might not have said it, but I will: This game means a ton for Coach Cal.
This game is basically an exercise in answering some of the questions that have tagged along with Cal in his career, and it can go a long way to settling many of the myths about his coaching ability. With a win Cal’s name would be crossed off the list of coaches to never win a title, and in the same stadium where Dean Smith and Jim Boeheim also won their first championship. The long careers of those coaches were thought to be incomplete without winning it all, and if everything goes well Cal can make sure that question will no longer be asked about him after Monday night.
But it’s not just Cal’s resume that will benefit from a win. It would mean an affirmation of the way he’s gone about building Kentucky by recruiting the best players and blending them into teams who are successful despite the core being together for only a short time. His style makes people uncomfortable, but for a long time detractors could hide behind the thinking that “you just can’t win a title that way.” With a victory tomorrow night, that argument becomes null and void, as does the one where Cal can’t coach and simply “rolls the ball out” for his talented players. As if last year wasn’t enough of a demonstration of the ignorance of that notion, winning a national title would be an emphatic statement that Coach Cal is as capable a coach as there is in the game. Throw in that he has to beat Bill Self and Kansas, the source of the biggest loss of his career and one that denied him his first title four years ago, and this game is full of opportunity for Cal to make some things right.
The game tomorrow night is big for everyone involved. The players want to go down in history and the fans want to bask in the ultimate glory of a national championship. But this national title game might mean more for Cal than anyone else involved, even if he won’t tell anyone about it.