It’s Back to the Future in college basketball. Despite leading the Wildcats to the 2012 national title, the 2011 Final Four and an Elite Eight finish in 2010, the national media is using the disappointing finish to the 2013 finish as proof that “Cal’s Way” doesn’t work. We’re back to the “Experience vs. Talent” argument that has plagued Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari since his days at Memphis. The narrative is back that it takes upperclassmen to win at the highest level of basketball. For example, in the Wildcats’ loss to the Spartans on Tuesday, the ESPN talking heads waxed poetic about the Spartans’ experience in withstanding a furious Kentucky second half comeback. But what could be said about the young Cats shaking of a near disastrous start to make the game close in the final seconds?
John Calipari is brazen, boastful and, at times, loves to hear himself talk. In short, he’s the perfect coach for Kentucky. And, yes, with Final Four appearances vacated at both UMass and Memphis, he has built himself up with an almost outlaw persona. He’s the coach that has gone all in on the “one and done” rule in college basketball, becoming public enemy number one among those that wistfully wish that players would go back to wearing short-shorts and high top Chuck Taylors.
What gets lost in all this hatred for Cal and the “One and Done” rule is how he’s consistently handcuffing himself. Every year, through his own choice, Calipari has to start over from scratch with his roster. He has to tweak his offensive and defensive philosophy every season. He has to manage a new group of egos and attitudes every season. How many coaches are flexible enough to do that? How many coaches step back, look at their ingredients and then decide how to coach the team? Not many can or would and I think Calipari should receive more credit for being a better coach than a recruiter (and we all know about his recruiting). John Calipari does more than just roll the ball out to talented players and hope for the best.
The Calipari Way at Kentucky has resulted in 125 wins and 27 losses, 12 of which occurred during the 2012-2013 season, the season that critics point to as being the indicator for the flaws of the way Cal coaches and recruits because after winning 30 or more games in 6 out of the previous seasons (with the one exception going to the Final Four), a coach doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt with one bad year. Apparently, not Calipari and not Kentucky. Another fact routinely omitted from last season’s obituary is the fact that the Cats lost future NBA first round pick Nerlens Noel in mid-February. I’m not arguing that the Cats would have or could have one the title, but it’s an easy assumption to make that with a healthy Noel, they grind out a few more late season wins and, at the very least, made the NCAA Tournament.
When the “Experience vs. Talent” argument surfaces, most critics point to the freshman heavy Fab 5 teams at Michigan and Calipari’s freshmen laden Kentucky teams. And I’m not sure why as those Wolverine teams went to back to back championship games and, as documented, Cal has had a pretty good run at Kentucky. A coach can be great, but without talent, he’s not going to win very many games. Talent can overcome a lot of mistakes. A good coach is going to find away to get the most out of his players, experience or not. A good coach is going to find way to out his team in the best position to win, night in and night out, freshman or not. While it’s fair to say that you may not like or support or think that “Cal’s Way” is good for college basketball, what you cannot honestly say is that John Calipari is successful doing things his way. Love him or hate him, Cal wound’t have it any other way.