Men's College Basketball: Young Wildcats ready for Louisville
By Jeff Reynolds
John Calipari was never one to shy away from talking records because in most cases the discussion has a way of spinning another thread about his winning ways.
That’s why, at first blush, when Calipari said for the first time in May 2013 that this year’s iteration of underclassmen in Lexington could go undefeated — 40-0, he said — it was basically allowed to settle as an offseason boast from college basketball’s most confident coach. Everywhere but Lexington. Shirts were printed. Trademarks applied for. Egos inflated.
It was moot almost immediately when Kentucky came to the United Center in November for the Champions Classic and lost to Michigan State, a tested veteran team coached by Tom Izzo, who told Calipari he could never do what he was doing with a constant spin cycle of his roster rotating in a new batch of wunderkinds.
The results, the record by which Calipari and his peers are judged sets the stage for Kentucky to turn this season into more than a salvage project after beating top-seeded Wichita State, 78-76, and dispatching Kansas State in the second round. This week Calipari is the coach of a roster dominated by underclassmen and carried by blue-chip variety freshman preparing to play in the Midwest regional semifinal against fierce rival Louisville. Two wins from the Final Four.
Already Calipari has contorted the roster into a winner, and doesn’t mind telling you about the magic tricks he happens to be pulling with a band of teenagers. The year of the freshman in college basketball included Jabari Parker at Duke and Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid at Kansas and Tyler Ennis at Syracuse.
And Julius Randle, the Kentucky power forward with a knack for rebounding a soft touch on his 15-foot lefty jumper, and the only member of that prized newcomer list still standing. In Calipari’s world, Randle remains one of many. The Wildcats have nine freshmen on the 2013-14 roster.
Teammates Joseph Young, Aaron and Andrew Harrison and Randle have started all season. Pressure? Not to Calipari.
“Pressure brings out the best,” Calipari said. “Any pressure on these kids when they come here? It’s on us.”
Some opine that the strain of being a freshman on a stage as grand as it comes in college sports might be too much. It will only be more prevalent in the days to come. Others say it’s too tough to measure.
“You’re a sophomore by the time conference play starts with all of the things that these guys have experienced before getting to school,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Saturday. “So I do think talent will trump experience in a lot of ways, but certainly experience can play havoc on young talent. But I think at this point in time freshmen should be able to handle it.”
Calipari, ever the optimist, doesn’t look or sound concerned about his young Wildcats’ capacity to respond to the Madness. His peers might not be envious of how he is doing it — with kids two games into their NCAA Tournament careers — but cannot help but applaud the results.
“I give him an A as a teacher. I give him an A as a recruiter. I give him an A as a preparer,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said before the NCAA Tournament. “It’s tough to do what he does. It’s very, very difficult coaching new groups each year. You don’t know what you have. You have no idea. That’s the way he does it. I don’t think Kentucky can get any better than John Calipari. I’m objective. He’s not a close friend, but we’re friendly. How are you going to get better than him at what he does?
“Are they having a great year? No, but you wouldn’t want to play them at tournament time. I’m a big believer in the way he teaches and the way he recruits. They can’t get better than him.”
It’s Pitino and Louisville, who cut down the nets in Atlanta last season, who stand between the Wildcats and a regional final. At this stage in the season, who is willing to bet against Cal’s kids?
Ah, yes, the records. It always comes back to that with Calipari.
He’s 5-1 against Louisville, losing only last season at KFC Yum! Center to the eventual national champions.