HOUSTON -- Kentucky was down two points with 16.6 seconds remaining when John Calipari huddled his team, grabbed a dry erase board and designed a play that never was properly executed.
A Brandon Knight layup? That would've been terrific. A drive and dish to Doron Lamb? Also acceptable. But nobody on the UK bench really wanted a DeAndre Liggins 3-pointer.
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So you can understand the anxiety Calipari must have felt when his entire season -- and, in many ways, his coaching reputation -- hung in the balance as the ball left Liggins' fingertips and glided toward the rim while an announced crowd of 75,421 watched helplessly right along with him.
If the shot falls, Calipari's in Monday's title game as the favorite.
If it doesn't, he's not.
"DeAndre shot it," Calipari said, "and I'm like, 'Please go in.' "
That's the most cruel part of this sport -- how it reduces men to hoping. You invest years in recruiting certain prospects, months into coaching them, then you stand on the sideline and watch a 22-foot jumper from a college kid either go through the rim or bounce off of it. The result helps shape your career.
Three years ago at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Calipari, while at Memphis, watched a ball leave Kansas junior Mario Chalmers' fingertips, and he needed it to miss. It didn't. So Calipari never accepted the national championship trophy that, only seconds earlier, seemed headed his way.
On Saturday night here at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Calipari watched a ball leave Liggins' fingterips, and he needed it to swish. It didn't. So Calipari lost again in the Final Four -- this time by an eventual 56-55 margin to Connecticut -- and in turn failed to earn another chance to play for a title on the first Monday in April.
"We had an opportunity," Calipari said. "It's disappointing."
Add it to the list.
Calipari's résumé now features:
• A loss as a No. 1 seed in the 2006 Elite Eight. (Had Calipari's Tigers beaten UCLA, Memphis would've entered the Final Four as the favorite to win the national championship.)
• A loss as a No. 1 seed in the 2008 title game. (Had Calipari's Tigers held a nine-point lead with less than two minutes remaining against Kansas, Memphis would've been national champions.)
• A loss as a No. 1 seed in the 2010 Elite Eight. (Had Calipari's Wildcats beaten West Virginia, Kentucky would've entered the Final Four as the favorite to win the national championship.)
• A loss as a favorite in the 2011 Final Four. (Had Calipari's Wildcats beaten Connecticut, Kentucky would've been the favorite in a title game against Butler.)
In other words, there have been four moments in the past six years when Calipari's final loss of the season prevented him from either winning a national title or becoming the favorite to win the national title, which is both stunning and an indication of just how often he is in position to achieve his ultimate goal.
Obviously, he keeps coming up short; there's no denying that. But if Calipari can lose his top three scorers from a team that earned a No. 1 seed in 2006 and still get to the Final Four in 2008, and if he can lose five first-round picks from a team that earned a No. 1 seed in 2010 and still get to the Final Four in 2011, there's no reason to think he won't be in this position again soon.
And by soon, I mean next year.
Regardless of whether Terrence Jones (doubtful), Knight (doubtful), Lamb (debatable) and Liggins (probable) return, Calipari will have a team built to compete for another national championship because he has signed the best recruiting class in the country, and one of the best of all time. McDonald's All-Americans Anthony Davis, Mike Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer will give Calipari four more future pros to work with, and that's probably more than any other coach will have on any other roster.
They'll be young, sure.
They'll struggle at times, definitely.
But by March they'll almost certainly be one of the nation's most feared matchups and by extension a legitimate threat to cut nets. The season could, of course, culminate with another missed free throw, another missed jumper, another disappointment. But sooner or later, as long as Calipari remains in college, that shot he watches fly from the sideline -- like Chalmers' shot he watched fly from the Alamodome sideline in 2008, like Liggins' shot he watched fly from the Reliant Stadium sideline on Saturday night -- is going to do what he begs it to do, and when it does, Calipari's string of season-closing press conferences featuring quotes about missed opportunities and major disappointments will suddenly and forever be snapped.