At UMass, a nothing school on the college basketball landscape, John Calipari won like he was at Kentucky. At Memphis, a bigger basketball school than UMass but still nothing much to look at when he got there in 2000, Calipari won again like he was at Kentucky.
So what happens now that John Calipari is coaching Kentucky?
I'll tell you what happens. Kentucky will win like it's the Boston Celtics.College basketball as you know it? It's over. That sport doesn't exist anymore, because that sport had a semblance of parity. One year North Carolina is the dominant program. One year it's UConn. One year it's Duke or UCLA or Florida. Maybe those teams don't win the national title the year they're dominant, or maybe they do. Either way, every year there is a team that, on paper, is the dominant program in college basketball. And every year it's a different team.
Until now. Until John Calipari merges with Kentucky.
Once Calipari gets Kentucky rolling -- and it won't take him long -- Kentucky will be that team. That dominant team. Every year?
Yes. Every year.
Things can go wrong, of course. Players can get hurt or ineligible. A scandal can come along out of nowhere, like the one rocking UConn at the moment. Kentucky itself has been laid low by NCAA violations, back when Eddie Sutton was running amok in Lexington. So things can happen.
But if none of those things happen ... it's over. College basketball will belong to Kentucky. Turn back the clock 50 or 60 years, because it'll be like that all over again. Kentucky won three national championships in the four seasons between 1948-51. The Wildcats added another in 1958. What happened between 1951 and '58? Three trips to the Elite Eight happened. Not even a point-shaving scandal could slow Kentucky down. The Wildcats didn't field a team in 1953 because of that scandal, then went 25-0 in 1954, but were held out of the NCAA tournament.
The coach then was Adolph Rupp. When he retired in 1972, he had won 876 games, more than anyone in college basketball history. His record stood for 25 years. Rupp was that good at Kentucky.
John Calipari would be that good at Kentucky, too. How could he not? He has been Kentucky-good at places that couldn't hold Kentucky's jock.
In 1988, Calipari went to Massachusetts, which hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in more than 25 years, and soon he was making it look easy. UMass averaged 29 wins per season from 1992-96, and reached the 1996 Final Four. There was the Marcus Camby scandal, with Camby's relationship to an agent costing him his eligibility and UMass its spot in the Final Four, and heads will roll if that happens at Kentucky.
But if that doesn't happen, Calipari will win huge. He'll win like he won at Memphis, where he won at least 33 games in each of the past four seasons and reached the 2008 NCAA title game.
Calipari will win like that at Kentucky, and maybe as soon as Year 1. Kentucky has two future pros, forward Patrick Patterson and guard Jodie Meeks, but neither is quite ready for the NBA. If they come back, and if Calipari brings just two of the incoming freshman studs he has lined up at Memphis -- say, Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins -- Kentucky would enter next season among the preseason favorites to win the national title. One year after going to the NIT.
Calipari is that good, because he attracts that kind of talent. You can question how he attracts that talent, and you can question the character of some of the talent he attracts, and those are legitimate issues for someone to tackle. But those are issues for another day.
Today, the issue is the merger of John Calipari and Kentucky basketball. He's going to get that school rolling again, because that's what he does. UMass had been stalled for 25 years, but he got that program up and rolling. Memphis had been stuck in neutral until he got that place rolling.
He'll get Kentucky rolling, too. Heaven help anyone who gets in the way.