On April 1, 2009, University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart introduced John Calipari as head coach of the men’s basketball team. Calipari, who made a splash at the Universities of Massachusetts and Memphis, was finally given the keys to one college basketball’s blue blood programs. The kid from Pittsburgh, PA that had to scrap and claw and fight for every ounce of respect was finally occupying the same seat that was once held by Adolph Rupp, Joe B Hall, Rick Pitno and Tubby Smith.
Obviously, Calipari arrived in Lexington with some baggage. With the NCAA vacating his Final Four trips with UMass and Memphis, Cal had garnered a reputation of playing a bit fast and loose with the NCAA rule book. He’d also become the poster child for all that was wrong with college basketball for his mastery of the “one and done” system that the NBA had forced on the NCAA. Even though Calipari has publicly decried the rule, he was forward thinking enough to decided that if the best players are going to be in college for one year and done, he should embrace it. In short, John Calipari was the perfect fit for Kentucky Basketball, an outstanding coach with a bit of a rebellious streak that thinks he’s constantly overlooked, matching up with a fan base that, despite the history of success always seems to have a chip on its shoulder as well.
When John Calipari took over for former head coach Billy Gillispie, the program was at its lowest point since Rick Pitino arrived with the Wildcats on NCAA probation. The teams weren’t bad, but they were mediocre (by Kentucky standards) and a national afterthought. And for a fan base as rabid as the Big Blue Nation, worse than being terrible is not being noticed at all. Cal arrived after the Cats finished a rare NIT run with his work cut out for him. His first recruiting class included the likes of John Wall, Eric Beldsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and John Hood. Combining those freshmen and veterans Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, Calipari led a 35-3 record, winning the school’s 44th regular season SEC and 26th SEC Tournament championships. And even though that team was upset in the Elite Eight by West Virginia, they and Calipari had put Kentucky Basketball back on the map.
The next season (2010-11), after an exodus of Wildcats to the NBA, Calipari brought in another heralded class, led by Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. This team struggled to find an identity through most of the season, finishing with a 10-6 record in the SEC. But, in an act of foreshadowing, Calipari figured out how to coach this team right before the SEC Tournament. The “tweak” was using Knight and senior forward Josh Harrellson in a Stockton/Malone type pick and roll. That staple play allowed Knight to drive for his own shot, create passing lanes for Lamb and Liggins and Miller on the outside and for Jones to operate underneath. The Cats would repeat as SEC Tourney champs and enter the NCAA as a four seed, in a region that few gave the Cats a chance to advance through. After a first round buzzer beating win against Princeton, the Cats avenged the previous year’s loss to West Virginia. And then, Knight hit a shot over Aaron Craft to eliminate the topseeded Ohio State Buckeyes (every Big Blue fan smiles at the memory of Jorts throwing the ball off of Jared Sullinger’s chest). In the Elite Eight, the Cats defeated the favored Tar Heels of North Carolina, with Liggins hitting a deep three to secure the victory. Calipari led the Cats to their 14th Final Four and the program’s first since 1998’s championship season.
With Knight and Liggins leaving for the NBA and Harrellson graduating, Calipari was once again charged with restocking the roster. He brought in Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kyle Wiltjer and Marquis Teague. Those four with sophomores Jones and Lamb would combine to become one of the best teams not only in UK history, but in college basketball history. Yes, there was the buzzer beating loss on Christian Watford’s shot at IU and Vanderbilt did trip the Cats up in the SEC Tournament final, but those would be the only two defeats of the season, for those Cats reached the program’s 15th Final Four and the school’s 8th NCAA Title. The rebel, the outsider, the outlaw, John Calipari had led the Cats back to the promised land. And with Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist going first and second in the NBA Draft (all starters plus Darius Miller ended up drafted), Cal was on top of the world and deservedly so.