It’s not often I can tell you exactly where I was one year ago on this day. But in the case of today- the Monday after the Elite Eight and prior to the Final Four- I can. At this time, on this day last year, I was putting the finishing touches on my article “It’s Kentucky’s Turn To Celebrate,” my appreciation of the Kentucky Wildcats, and the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 1998. The Wildcats win came just hours after I got to celebrate watching my own UConn Huskies advance to Houston as well.
And in a lot of ways, it really was a reason for Kentucky fans to celebrate; not so much in getting to the Final Four, but the process that it took to get there. Reflecting back on Kentucky’s 2011 season, the truth is that the Wildcats really weren’t all that good… at least by the insane standard John Calipari had set for himself after one year in Lexington. The 2011 Wildcats weren’t loaded with talent, but instead had one sure-fire lottery pick (Brandon Knight) and a whole lot of guys who had either not yet reached their potential (Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones) or others whose potential was limited to begin with (like DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson). It resulted in a frustrating season that included losses to such SEC powers as, umm, Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia. Most presumed 2011 to be a bridge year, the 12 long months between the legitimate title runs of John Wall and his gang, and another crazy talented team in 2012.
Well guess what? That bridge team ended up in the Final Four, a place that not surprisingly, Kentucky again finds themselves today, one year later. The process to get there in 2012 came with fewer potholes in 2011, but the result is the same: Kentucky is now just two games away from a National Championship. And as I watched the Wildcats eviscerate Baylor last night while also reflecting on last year’s Final Four run to Houston, I couldn’t help but think one thing: We are witnessing the beginning stages of a Kentucky dynasty.
Now, before you all jump down my throat, let me start by saying a few things. For one, I understand that by definition, a sports team can’t be a “dynasty” until they win multiple titles, let alone get the first, which Kentucky has yet to do. I do understand that. Saying Kentucky is a dynasty in the making also doesn’t mean I’m guaranteeing the Wildcats get the title in 2012 either. Yes Kentucky should be favored entering the weekend, but there will also be three teams plenty capable of beating the Wildcats if they don’t come to play in New Orleans.
But in a lot of ways, just making it to two straight Final Fours is a pretty good indicator of what’s to come at Kentucky too. It doesn’t matter who you are, who your coach is, or how talented the team, Final Four’s aren’t a birthright and are guaranteed to no one.
As a matter of fact, let’s break this down for a second, because I don’t think people have a full appreciation for just how hard it is to get this far. Winning four single elimination games in a row is tough enough, if only because you’ve got to be able to manage a million little things, and then handle a million more unexpected ones that randomly come along the way. These title opportunities don’t come around often, and as we learned from Syracuse and North Carolina this year, even when the opportunity does come, nothing is guaranteed. All it takes is one bad break (either literally or figuratively) for a championship season to be derailed, and a year’s worth of hard work to disappear in 40 minutes.
Yet here is Kentucky, and here is Calipari, and after three years of marriage between the two, Final Fours have almost become the expectation.
Which is incredible, it really is. Want to know how hard is to make just one Final Four? Think about it like this: Jim Boeheim is the third winningest coach in the history of college basketball. He’s been at Syracuse for 36 years. And he’s been to three Final Fours…total. Total. In 36 years. For comparison’s sake, Calipari is closing in on 36 months (just three years) and already has two. Let that sink in for a second.
While we’re here, let’s give this more perspective, because I really cannot emphasize this enough: Getting to a Final Four is hard freakin’ work. And two in a row? Darn near impossible.
As a matter of fact, would you believe me if I told you that the Kansas Jayhawks- probably the most successful regular season program of the last decade- hadn’t been to back-to-back Final Fours since the 2002 and 2003 seasons? What about that bastion of basketball excellence, the Duke Blue Devils? Yeah, they haven’t been to two straight Final Fours since 1992. Louisville? Haven’t been to two straight since 1983. And Indiana? A program which has been one of college basketball’s best for the better part of six decades, has never been to back-to-back Final Fours. Ever. Like, in the history of their program.
Well Kentucky has done it under John Calipari, and there is no sign that things are starting to slow down. Calipari has already established himself as the best tournament coach since Coach K in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, with seven Sweet 16’s in the last seven years, and six Elite Eight’s and three Final Fours over that stretch as well.
Yet the truly scary thing is that after all of that, only now are things starting to totally come together for Cal.
Why do I say that? Well remember that even in Calipari’s best years at Memphis, his teams were nowhere near as talented as his Kentucky teams are, or will be in the future. Heck, he didn’t even really have a can’t miss, future NBA All-Star until Derrick Rose showed up until 2008, and even then, Rose was surrounded by mostly average talent. As easy as it is to forget now, other than Rose (who was a one-man wrecking crew by himself), Chris Douglas-Roberts was the only guy from those late Memphis teams to have any semblance of an NBA career. From there, Joey Dorsey got a cup of coffee in the pros (ok, a half a cup) and the rest of that roster has spent their pro careers bouncing between Bulgaria, Bolivia and Belgium. Through the years, too many people have tabbed Calipari as “just a recruiter.” Well the crazy thing is, only now is Calipari starting to get really good at the whole recruiting thing.
And that’s the one of the many scary things about where this is going at Kentucky: The recruiting isn’t going to slow down.
Why am I so confident? Because we now have a sample size big enough to prove that’s Cal’s coaching style can work. That you can go to play for Calipari for one year, you can get significantly better as a basketball player, that you can end up as a lottery pick, and that oh by the way, you can also compete for a National Championship while you’re on campus too. That’s not something Calipari could promise to recruits even 18 months ago. Three Elite Eights and two Final Fours in three years proves otherwise.
While we’re on the subject, how about the players themselves? Because the more I think about it, the more I have to ask: Of every truly elite player that has ever come in and played for John Calipari, has any one not fully reached their potential? Daniel Orton is the only that immediately comes to mind, although I’m pretty sure John Calipari didn’t even recruit him. Others like DeMarcus Cousins and Terrence Jones needed time to figure it out, but did eventually get there.
Still, let’s look at the facts: Cal has pumped out seven one-and-done players in the last four years (with plenty more coming this spring), and only one didn’t eventually reach his potential- or exceed it- while on campus. Orton is also the only one out of seven to not have some level of success in the NBA. And really, that in and of itself is the crazy part: Not only is Calipari getting the best high players in the country. He’s making them better.
Then there are the fans, and I want to talk about them for a second, because I do think they play a role in all this too. We always hear that Kentucky has the best fans in college basketball, but I mean, how can you prove they’re the “best”? You can’t. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that no group is more impactful.
What do I mean that?
Well, as I watched Kentucky’s postseason games this year, I couldn’t help but notice that regardless of where Kentucky has played this March, the building was filled with mostly their fans. It obviously happened in the regionals in Louisville, but also in Atlanta this past weekend and New Orleans for the SEC Tournament too. I see no reason why it will be any different this weekend at the Final Four either. Heck, I went to the National Championship Game in Houston last year, and can honestly say that there were more Kentucky fans in the building than UConn fans… and Kentucky wasn’t even playing!
So what’s the point in all this? Just that it’s one thing to have a great coach, and its one thing to have talented players. But it’s quite another to have good coaching, talented players and to have every postseason game turn into a de-facto home game. Are you kidding me?
Now obviously, all of this doesn’t mean a damn thing if Kentucky doesn’t start winning titles, and I don’t think you need me to tell you that Calipari has yet to get his first. As a matter of fact, that’s just about the only card left to use against Calipari: “Well, he hasn’t won the big one.”
Except here’s the thing: Go through the history of college basketball, and that same argument has been used against pretty much every coach. People said it about Dean Smith before he won his first title in 1982. They said it about Coach K before he won his first title in 1991. Growing up in Connecticut, I constantly heard the same about Jim Calhoun, and it was no different a few years later with Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams. None of those guys “could win the big one.” You know, until they did.
And really, if you look at those last three, Calipari’s career arc is strikingly close to theirs. Williams didn’t win his first title until he was 55. Calhoun 57. Boeheim 59. Well, the last time I checked the calendar, Calipari was 53. If his first doesn’t come this year, it will eventually. If there’s one thing college basketball history has proven, it’s that great coaches always eventually get their rings.
Add all this up and I do believe we’re looking at the beginning of a dynasty in college basketball. If anything, it actually reminds me a lot of what is happening with Alabama in football right now too. I cover a lot of college football on this site and others, and the parallels between the programs are downright scary. Alabama already had the best resources, best facilities and the fans that cared the most in college football. All they needed was the right coach. They got Nick Saban five years ago, and have won two titles since.
Well, Kentucky isn’t there yet, but they are well on their way.
And the scary thing for the rest of college basketball is that it’s only the beginning.
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