HOUSTON -- The 74-year-old groupie in sweatpants and a T-shirt was atop the stationary bicycle in Kentucky's locker room. To call him an oracle would be overstating the importance of a bunch of kids running around in shorts this weekend. But in a Final Four full of Kembas, Shakas and freshmen, sometimes it's worth going to the old guy in the corner.
"Somehow, I was there," said Bob Marcum, "I saw it. They did play."
|As he preps his UConn players for Saturday's semifinal, Jim Calhoun faces a three-game NCAA suspension. (Getty Images)|
According to the NCAA, Camby received benefits from an agent. Memphis' appearance three years ago was struck from the records after Derrick Rose's ACT score was invalidated. Calipari wasn't named in either investigation but his accomplishments were tainted. As soon as Kentucky beat North Carolina on Sunday to get here, the question has lingered in the air. It was finally asked -- by me, kiddingly -- on Friday.
"How does it feel to coach in your first Final Four?"
"I don't deal with that," Calipari said. "We've been here three times. Those players played those games and did what they were supposed to. I'm so proud of what we've accomplished."
While Big Blue Nation composes itself after my audacity, they have to admit: a clear line can be drawn in this Final Four. Call it Infractions Committee vs. Impossible Dream. Too simplistic? No one can argue VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens are the boy-kings of this tournament.
"Shaka being the brilliant and very smart, but cool, fighter," Jim Calhoun said. "Brad hasn't said the wrong thing ever -- ever."
UConn and Kentucky are both burdened with what has been, at times, the unsavory compliance history of their coaches. It's easy to make that distinction when each coach had a tournament performance vacated in the same year. UConn's Sweet 16 run under Calhoun was also stricken in 1996. It's an easier line to draw when the NCAA president considers the black-hat factor of Kentucky-UConn.
Asked about that side of the bracket, Mark Emmert said the association must create a climate of "constructive fear and probability of being caught."
That unsavory history got an update Friday. A former Memphis and Kentucky staffer under Calipari allegedly made impermissible phone calls, according to FoxSports.com.
Meanwhile, Calhoun is loving life. You know it's true when the 68-year-old compares himself to actor Fred MacMurray with his own My Three Sons -- Smart, Stevens and Calipari. Calhoun is also awaiting a three-game suspension from the NCAA next season. Depending on your outlook, that is evidence of the NCAA instituting that vaunted "constructive fear" or not being harsh enough. UConn was slapped with probation for recruiting violations involving former player Nate Miles. On the day this magic season began, the first day of practice, Calhoun and his staff spent 13 hours being interviewed by the NCAA in Indianapolis.
"If anybody wants to drag up an experience that happened two years ago, bring it back up. That's their choice," said Calhoun, his old irascible self bubbling up the surface. "I'm going forward because I'm going forward with my life."
That life includes a one-time bitter feud with Calipari. From 1988-96, Cal was the brash young coach at UMass infringing on Calhoun's turf. It was inevitable they would clash. Amherst and Storrs are less than 100 miles apart. Camby came out of Hartford -- that is, Connecticut.
"UConn operated with far more resources than they did at UMass," Marcum said. "For us to reach that [Final Four] pinnacle ahead of them, I think it bothered Jim a little bit. ... People have told me that one of the reasons Marcus committed was that UMass stayed with him through everything. I think UConn was a little bit removed."
Calhoun: "Yeah, he [Calipari] was loud, 50 miles away trying to fight for a little bit of turf in New England. There's not much turf in New England, basketball-wise. You're fighting for that. ... He could never say he parked the cah in Hahvud Yahd."
The years -- and Calipari's job changes -- have cooled the rivalry. Calhoun stopped UMass-UConn matchups in 1990. The series dated back to 1905. The tournament has forced the old foes together sporadically. UConn beat Kentucky in the championship game of the Maui Invitational in November, the first hint the Huskies were something more than what we thought.
The back end of the season has been more telling. Beginning with the Big East tournament, UConn won nine games in 19 days to get here. At the same time, one year after losing four freshmen to the NBA, Calipari is trying to become the second coach to take three different schools to the Final Four. At the least he retired the unofficial record for most first-time Final Four appearances by a coach.
Kidding again, Big Blue Nation -- but the question has even crossed Kentucky president Lee Todd's mind.
"This Final Four banner," Todd told the Lexington Herald-Leader this week, "will stay."