We tend to have selective memory at times when we think back upon the happenings in our lives, especially our lives as Kentucky fans. We often times recall the instances when we were one moment, one call, one bounce, one injury, etc. away from winning a particular game, or reaching a final four– or even winning a national championship. Those moments are easy for us to pinpoint– the “what if we had guarded the inbound in ’92?” moments. What we sometimes fail to consider though when retracing our steps through history are the moments that turned in our favor. We don’t always look at those moments from the “what if that shot by Aaron Harrison hadn’t gone in?” perspective.
I would argue that two coaches in Kentucky basketball history have had their Kentucky careers defined by such moments more so than any others. For one coach, the ball has bounced a bit more favorably than the other.
John Calipari has one won national championship at Kentucky so far in his career. Tubby Smith won one national championship at Kentucky in his career. When the history books write about these two coaches and their respective time at Kentucky, one coach will surely be deemed as the more successful. The other, while still successful, will always come with the inevitable “what ifs?”
John Calipari has reached 3 Final Fours in his time at Kentucky thus far. Of those Final Fours, 2 of the 3 came on the shoulders of a series of impressive game-winning shots. Tubby Smith reached the Elite 8 three times. Of those Elite 8 games, 2 of the 3 were games in which Kentucky in many peoples’ minds should have won. In one game Kentucky was moments away before the game was eventually sent into OT against Michigan State, and in the other– Kentucky was a Keith Bogans injury away.
If Tubby Smith wins those Elite 8 games against Michigan State or Marquette (maybe even just 1 or 2 of the 3) and adds another Final 4 or two to his Kentucky resume’, how differently would we look back on his time at Kentucky? If John Calipari’s and Kentucky lose that First Round game against Princeton when Brandon Knight makes the game-winning lay-up, or Wichita State hits the last second shot against Kentucky this year in the second round… how differently would we look back on his time so far at Kentucky?
College basketball especially is such a game of fortunes and misfortunes. The NCAA tournament is so filled with drama and unpredictable moments, shots, games, etc. that a bounce here and a bounce there, a missed shot here or a made shot there can completely define how one coach or one team or one player is forever remembered. Tubby Smith had some great teams at Kentucky and seemed to always come up on the wrong side of the coin when it came to the biggest moments. John Calipari has also had some great teams at Kentucky and has seemingly had the right players hit the big shots at the right time in the biggest moments (i.e., Brandon Knight and Aaron Harrison).
… And Billy Gillispie’s big shots in the biggest moments might have been of a different variety.