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April 3, 2014

The Final Four Calipari faces skeptics with grins, wins

By Shannon Ryan
Chicago Tribune

---- — John Calipari waited until the question was asked, but he quickly wanted to set the record straight about his abilities as a recruiter.

“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” he said. “When I was at (Massachusetts eight seasons,) we had one McDonald’s All-American, Donte Bright. When I was at Memphis, we may have had three over my (nine) years. We weren’t getting top 50 players at UMass. We were winning. We were a terrific team. I had to coach guys four years.”

This is not the first time in this tournament — or during the last five seasons at Kentucky — that Calipari has pointed out he has built programs differently and won.

But the Calipari everyone knows at Kentucky has become synonymous with one-and-done freshmen, five-star recruits who bolt to the NBA after one season.

After winning the NCAA Tournament in 2012 with a cast of freshmen led by Anthony Davis and making the Final Four this season with five starting freshmen, it’s hard to argue his current method doesn’t work.

When No. 8 seed Kentucky meets No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the semifinals Saturday in Arlington, Texas, it will be the third time in four seasons that the Wildcats have reached this elite stage of the season.

Yet there may not be a more polarizing coach in college basketball since Bob Knight roamed the sidelines at Indiana and later Texas Tech.

And Calipari knows he is a lightning rod.

Calipari said this about what he tells recruits: “Every game is the Super Bowl. You’re scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you’re going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me. What we’re doing has never been done. You can’t do this. So you’re getting that hit. If you can’t deal with all that, don’t come here.”

Then he said, “That’s a heck of a sale, isn’t it?”

His two vacated Final Four appearances at Massachusetts and Memphis leave a stain on his résumé and his one-and-done recruiting bristles some.

This season has been an example of a masterful turnaround.

The Wildcats lost 10 games and looked aimless in the middle of the season. But Calipari said he made a “tweak,” one he declines to go into detail about until the season ends.

He said it made all the difference, although he concedes he should have made the change sooner.

“Bottom line is I screwed this up in a couple of different ways,” he said. “I waited probably two months longer than I should have to put the couple of things in that changed how we were as a team.”

What’s obvious to everyone now is that the Wildcats have been molded into a championship contender.

“People are saying, ‘Boy, he looks more relaxed,’” Calipari said.

He seemed like it Tuesday when he joked with reporters that he was wheeled into practice in a casket, making the point that, “We’re not dead yet.” Of course, on April Fool’s Day, the story wasn’t true.

But it did prove two things. Kentucky has made a great survival story and Calipari really is enjoying himself.

Why shouldn’t he?

“I am more relaxed,” he said, “because I know I don’t have to see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate, taking five bad shots. I’m not dealing with that anymore. This team has been empowered now and now I can just coach basketball.”

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