John Clay, a longtime writer at the Lexington Herald-Leader, used his column this past weekend to ask a question that hints at the type of pressure Kentucky's Hall of Fame coach might find himself under now that he likely will, once again, have the nation's top-ranked team in the preseason: Should John Calipari have more than one NCAA title?
Clay's answer was ... yes.
And I agree -- although, as Clay correctly notes, it's a complicated thing to consider and forces you to balance a championship-or-bust mentality with big-picture success that's unmatched elsewhere in the sport. For instance, when discussing Calipari, you can simply highlight that he's made four Final Fours in the past nine years, which is twice as many as any other coach in that same span. That's undeniably terrific. But, on the other hand, it is true that it's all amounted to only one national championship, which can be used by critics to suggest the man who has been assembling high-level teams more often than anybody is actually underachieving.
It's a thing that's hovered above Calipari forever.
He's been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament six different times in his career -- at UMass in 1996, at Memphis in 2006 and 2008, at Kentucky in 2010, 2012 and 2015 -- and only has one championship to show for it. But Calipari has been so close so many other times that it's fascinating to consider the possibilities.
Let me walk you through it.
If Calipari's Tigers, in the 2006 Elite Eight, had beaten a UCLA team it had already beaten earlier in the season, Memphis would've been the only No. 1 seed at the Final Four. Instead, the Tigers shot 11.8 percent from 3-point range in that game and were eliminated, clearing the way for Florida, as a No. 3 seed, to win the championship. Then, two years later, Calipari's Tigers were famously up nine points on Kansas with 1:58 left in the 2008 championship game. If they don't collapse, or if Mario Chalmers doesn't make that shot, Calipari would've had what would've been his first national title. Alas, they did collapse -- and Chalmers did make that shot. And Memphians remain haunted by it to this day. Beyond that, you can reasonably argue Calipari had the nation's most talented and best team in 2010, 2012 and 2015. But only one of those teams (2012) even played for the championship. And though nobody would describe Calipari's 2014 Wildcats as great, they did advance to the title game of the NCAA Tournament and were 2.5-point favorites at tipoff over a UConn team that finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference.
UK lost that game 60-54.
John Calipari as a No. 1 seed
|Year||School||NCAA Tournament Result||Final Record|
|1996||UMass||Lost to Kentucky in Final Four||35-2*|
|2006||Memphis||Lost to UCLA in Elite Eight||33-4|
|2008||Memphis||Lost to Kansas in NCAA title game||38-2*|
|2010||Kentucky||Lost to West Virginia in Elite Eight||35-3|
|2012||Kentucky||Defeated Kansas in NCAA title game||38-2|
|2015||Kentucky||Lost to Wisconsin in Final Four||38-1|
|* Vacated by NCAA|
Add it all up, and the following is accurate: Calipari has either had the nation's best team, or been in a great spot to win a national title, six times in the past 13 seasons -- which is precisely why it's reasonable to suggest he should have more than one championship. I'm sure, deep down, Calipari agrees. But I'd argue his lack of championships says more about the nature of the NCAA Tournament than it does about him -- my point being that, in a 68-school single-elimination tournament of 40-minute games, no coach is ever likely to win a championship regardless of how good his team might be. You'd be wise to take the field every year.
That's the truth.
The best eight teams never make the Elite Eight. The best four teams hardly ever make the Final Four. The best two teams rarely play for the national championship. And the best team doesn't always win the NCAA Tournament. So, yeah, March Madness is loads of fun and perhaps the best tournament in all of American sports. But it's not a good way to ensure the best team gets the big trophy.
Which brings us back to Calipari.
His Wildcats are No. 1 in the preseason CBS Sports Top 25 (and one) and should also eventually be No. 1 in the preseason AP poll for the third time in a six-year span. Expectations are high -- as they should be. And if Calipari doesn't deliver a championship with this roster, the lack-of-titles conversation surrounding him will surely intensify again -- especially in Kentucky.
I get it.
But you'll never convince me it's wise to apply a championship-or-bust mentally to any college basketball coach or program for all of the reasons previously stated -- which is why, I think, it's smarter to view the Calipari era with this in mind: The only thing a college basketball coach can reasonably be expected to do is assemble legitimate championship-contenders as often as possible, secure the kind of seed in the NCAA Tournament that makes a deep run likely, and then hope for the best. That's it. And Calipari has done that basically every other season at Kentucky -- and more consistently than any other coach at any other school for the past nine years.
Have there been missed opportunities?
But don't ever forget this: Missed opportunities are better than a lack of opportunities. And, with John Calipari, there will never be a lack of opportunities. His team will almost always have a chance. And even if those chances don't always, or even often, result in championship banners, the fact that the realistic chances come so regularly should probably be celebrated and not bemoaned.