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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

This looks like John Calipari's year at Kentucky

The coach who understands baby-sit basketball has taken three teams to the Final Four, and these Wildcats are capable of going the distance.

March 14, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Kentucky Coach John Calipari has a team that's capable of winning the NCAA title this year.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari has a team that's capable of winning… (Pablo Alcala / MCT )

Sometimes, as George Mason, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth know, it's just your time.

That's why we're going door to door selling Kentucky and John Calipari in this year's NCAA tournament.

There comes a point in a great coach's career when the lilacs finally bloom. It took UCLA Coach John Wooden 16 years, remember, to win his first title.

Dean Smith ran the cleanest shop in college hoops for years, yet the coach who started at North Carolina in 1961 didn't win it all until 1982.

Jerry Tarkanian finally won the prize at Nevada Las Vegas in 1990, Lute Olson's locks were silver-streaked by the time Arizona claimed the 1997 title, and Roy Williams went to the Final Four four times in 17 years before he finally cried the tears of a crown.

With the exception of Eddie Sutton and Norm Stewart, most of the truly deserving, elite, modern-era coaches ultimately got theirs.

This could be it for Calipari.

Say what you will about Kentucky's coach — everyone else has. But unlike pious phonies who wear scarlet-and-gray sweater vests and then lie to the public and the NCAA, Calipari is what he is: a slightly slick, quotable, in-your-face coach in a sometimes unsavory sport where rules are written to be exploited and/or broken.

Is Calipari a great coach? Yes.

Does he have baggage? So much that he requires his own porter.

Two of his Final Four teams — Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 — had their appearances vacated by the NCAA.

Calipari has never been personally implicated, but, as CEO, he is responsible to the extent he was in charge.

No coach has more deftly stayed ahead of trouble better than Calipari, which makes him the perfect fit for Kentucky. The coach and school have complicated pasts but are similarly hell-bent on one thing: winning big.

Kentucky opens this year's NCAA tournament on an insatiable quest for its eighth national title.

Another championship would leave the Wildcats three behind UCLA's magnificent 11, the only number standing between Kentucky and anything that's basketball important.

No one gets baby-sit basketball more unapologetically than Calipari.

The NBA and NCAA are responsible for the age-limit rule that forces elite kids to play college for one season. He accepts the premise and would restock Kentucky's roster every hour if that was the fastest path to cutting down the nets.

"My thing is, these kids are just chasing their dreams just like tennis players and golfers and geniuses and computer geeks," Calipari said Wednesday in advance of the Wildcats' NCAA opener Thursday against Western Kentucky.

In 2010, his first season at Kentucky, Calipari lost his freshman lineup to the NBA draft's first round. Calipari didn't get mad, he got even (better).

Last year's team, led by NBA-bound Brandon Knight, made it to the Final Four.

Calipari has infused this year's squad with three more kids from the temp agency: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.

The only downside to changing locker assignments so often is the lack of experience come NCAA crunch time.

Winning it all, especially when it's expected, is the opposite of easy.

"The greatest thing about this tournament is the one-and-doneness of it," Calipari said. "You've got to play game to game and anybody can do anything. That's what makes it exciting. That's why people watch it on TV."

Calipari has taken three teams to the Final Four that failed finishing school.

His 1996 Massachusetts team, with Marcus Camby, made a nice run to the Final Four. But that was Pitino's year, not Calipari's.

Calipari could have made 2008 his year at Memphis, but that wonderful Derrick Rose team blew a late lead and lost in overtime to Kansas. Given that Memphis' appearance was later vacated by the NCAA, it was better that Kansas won.

Calipari, only 53, is in his prime. His forceful personality and public relations skills act as counterweight at the nation's most neurotic and greedy program.

Calipari has a knack for getting his message across to players — well, the gist of it.

After a loss to Vanderbilt in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament, a defeat Calipari welcomed as a teachable moment, Terrence Jones remarked, "Coach feels we were getting ignorant."

"Arrogant," Calipari corrected.

A thousand things can go wrong on the road to a championship.

Two tournaments ago, Kentucky missed 28 of 32 three-point shots in a regional loss to West Virginia. And that Kentucky team had John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

Of this year, Calipari said, "I like my team. I like our individual players, and I like how we're playing."

Maybe it's a case of bluegrass fever, but this does feel like Kentucky's time.

We'll know soon if it is, or isn't.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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