Turns out Coach Cal can actually coach, too

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

NEWARK, N.J. -- The offensive precision, the defensive discipline, the ridiculously perfect play calls -- this was John Calipari's game. This was his day. This is his tournament.

For his critics, like this one, who have said he knows as much about X's and O's as a Jersey Shore extra, Calipari has shut us up. For those who say he doesn't know a pick and roll from a buttered one, you must close your piehole, too.

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After what he did to North Carolina by out-coaching Roy Williams and getting to another Final Four by beating the Tar Heels, 76-69, it's time to stop saying Calipari is only a recruiter of hops and say without equivocation that he can coach.

The signs were all there like crop circles on a corn field. The pick and roll elegance between Josh Harrellson and his guards against the Tar Heels. Brandon Knight tossing the basketball off the rump of a North Carolina player to maintain possession was the sort of intelligent tactic that, had it been done by a Duke player, would elicit oodles of iambic pentameter and Coach K slobbering.

On and on it goes. The fact the Wildcats, despite being such a young team, didn't fully succumb to a late Tar Heel run. Or held North Carolina to 19 percent shooting from three-point range. Or never lost their cool. Or played with discipline. Or shot well. Or got revenge after losing to North Carolina earlier in the season. Or were never rattled by Harrison Barnes' athleticism or intimidated by Tyler Zeller's length.

The hustle, the smartness. Let's not forget Calipari also scrambled Thad Matta's brain. Ohio State was the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

Magic Johnson -- yes, that Magic -- Tweeted about Calipari, saying the win proved "not only can he recruit, but he is a great coach."

This was Calipari's game. This was his day. This is his tournament.

"We lost five first-round draft picks and everyone wants to say you can't win with young players," he said. "I say if it is experience or talent and I have a choice, I'm taking talent and we will figure out how to make them play together, how to get them to defend, how to increase their toughness. How they have to play to win ballgames, I'll deal with that. Now if they're talented and experienced, you don't lose any games.

"But, you know, I'm proud of these guys. Look, here's what this comes down to for me, Josh Harrellson, are you kidding me? Forget we went to a Final Four, going to a Final Four, so what? Look what's happened for him. Darius Miller has totally changed his game. Look what's happened. DeAndre Liggins. Their future, their dreams. Yeah, we want to win a couple more, but when you look at this, not only freshmen doing well, they've now established who they are and where they want to go and they have done it through this program and through this team, and I'm proud of that."

Calipari explained afterward he was more hands-on with this team than maybe he has been with any other he's coached. In many ways, it showed. Calipari slowed down North Carolina's penchant for getting easy scores in transition by emphasizing Terrence Jones and Harrellson crash the offensive boards and have two other Kentucky players sprint back early on defense. Meanwhile, Liggins slowed Heels guard Kendall Marshall. It didn't work to perfection, but instead of a gaggle of fast breaks the Tar Heels were limited to a moderate number.

When North Carolina surprised the Wildcats by packing their defense in tight, the players knew what to do. They stepped out and hit 12 3-pointers, which tied a school record for fifth most in a single tournament game. Again, that's coaching.

Zeller will be a lottery pick in the draft. He's solid, but the 21 points he scored against Kentucky didn't feel like they had deep impact. The Wildcats met Zeller early by preventing him from setting up under the basket without a fight. On one side they trapped him big man to big man and on the other they mixed in guards on the double. Calipari was giving Zeller lots to think about and there were moments when Zeller looked confused.

One of Calipari's best moments came later in the second half when he called for two consecutive plays to go right after foul-beleaguered John Henson. It worked as Henson picked up another crucial foul and finished with just four points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes.

At the end of the game, with just seconds left, Kentucky's Knight crashed into the right knee of Williams while scrambling for a loose ball. The knee hyper-extended and Williams limped to his chair and then to the postgame news conference. It was a symbolic moment since this young Wildcat group is busting through expectations and Calipari is shattering previous images of his coaching acumen.

There will still be the non-believers who will say Calipari couldn't coach his way out of a YMCA league. Calipari's previous critics, like this one, must admit their error. Those who can't see what Calipari is doing still believe the Earth is flat and Britney Spears can sing.

Because this was Calipari's game. This was his day. This is his tournament.


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