Below is a piece I penned on my blog last year, shortly after John Calipari was announced the new head coach at UK. A year later, I have just finished Part II, and will be posting it here shortly for your reading pleasure. But, I thought some of you might get some enjoyment out of digesting the first piece beforehand. Before you read, please bear in mind that my opinions are based solely off the things I have personally witnessed and reflected upon on my own time, along with the facts presented. I typically don't base my words off anything else I've read or anyone's opinions but my own.
April 09, 2009
Analytical View On John Calipari - Part I
Well, let me correct that -- it's more like thoughts about how the media has portrayed Calipari moreso than John himself. And just to clarify from the get-go -- this piece has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a Louisville fan and the subject at hand is Kentucky's new coach. I'm a Cards fan yes, but due to several things in my life I no longer spend my time wishing death on UK's basketball program as I did in the past. I've grown up a lot since the early part of the century, things have changed in my point of view, not to mention my fiancee is a Cat fan and I took her to Rupp for her first live game this passed season. I even find myself rooting UK on when my future wife and I are watching the game. And if Calipari had gone to Indiana, Arizona, or hell -- even Appalachian State, I'd still have this beef to get off my chest because the media would still be all over John C's nutsack.
Ok, with that out of the way -- John Calipari is a good coach. I've always liked the guy and thought his Memphis teams always showed up to play hard. But, let's get down to some cold hard reality. He's not the Moses of collegiate coaches. And his track record does not justifiably indicate he's the proven messiah that will ultimately save UK basketball. As a matter of fact, his track record isn't much better than Billy Gillispie's when you get to the bare bones of it. What the hell am I talking about, some of you media-preyed victims may ask!? Allow me to bring some undeniable TRUTH to you...
First thing -- every broadcast I've seen or heard that covers this story can't help but mention Calipari's win/loss record over the last four years (137-14 in case you didn't know). This era is comprised of four trips to the NCAA Tournament where Calipari led Memphis to the National Finals, two Elite Eights and one Sweet 16 including four conference Regular Season & Tournament Championships totaling four 30+ win seasons making him the first coach in the history of division 1 men's basketball to break 30 wins four years in a row. Impressive? More like convenient. Reason? The last four years (2005-2009) Memphis has played in a league called Conference USA (C-USA) and has been the lone standing top 25 program in it since the Big East expanded in the 2005-06 season, when C-USA heavyweights Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, & Charlotte left town for bigger and better things.
Would anyone like to know Calipari's record the last FIVE years that C-USA was competitive (2000-2005)? Answer -- 115-55. An extra year in the comparison and still 22 less wins and 41 more losses. How many National Finals, Elite Eights, and Sweet 16 finishes did John Cal and Memphis achieve? Answer - ZERO. In fact, Memphis MISSED the NCAA Tournament three times during that five year stretch and settled for the NIT all three years (a one-time event that led to the firing of already former UK coach Billy Gillispie). How many C-USA Regular Season Championships did Memphis achieve? Answer - 1. How many C-USA Tournament Championships? Answer - 0. And keep in mind that even in those days C-USA was never considered an elite league (hence the 2005 transition). It was top-heavy with four or five good teams (varying by season) with the 2nd half of the league often below .500 in the RPI which usually put C-USA about the 6th or 7th toughest conference in the nation at best -- falling well behind power leagues like the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big East, and Big 12.
Case in point -- the 2004-05 season saw Louisville entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-4 record which boasted several non-conference wins over top 25 competition along with both the C-USA Regular Season and Tournament Championships. The Cardinals were "rewarded" by the NCAA selection committee with a 4 seed for tournament play. Ouch. Reason given of course was the much agreed upon consensus that Louisville played in a subpar conference for which they were penalized by the committee. Interesting. FYI -- Louisville responded by blazing their way to the Final Four, easily taking down the top seeded team of the region. But back on topic, after the power programs left C-USA at season-end of '05 -- Memphis, who had just lost in the NIT suddenly became a top 10 program overnight. Despite playing in what had become one of the weakest conferences in the nation, they were rewarded with two 1 seeds and two 2 seeds over those four years. Ridiculous.
Why? The argument generally presented in Memphis' defense of justifying their bloated seeding is the out-of-conference schedule they play to attempt to compensate for their cupcake league. Let's take a deligent look...
2005-06 was Memphis' first year alone in C-USA as a top team. Only other decent program present was a UAB team coached by Mike Anderson (more on him later). In non-conference play Memphis beat ranked UCLA and ranked Gonzaga whom I hesitate to even mention because like the Tigers, the Zags also play in a crap conference and are usually overrated every year as well (check their NCAA tournament history for more) and Memphis always beats these guys. It's almost a gimmie game to enhance their tournament resume. Anyway, Memphis lost to Duke and on their home floor to Texas before also dropping a game to Mike Anderson (more on him later) and UAB in league play who were unranked at the time. This is hardly a resume that screams #1 seed but alas, John Cal and Memphis got it which allowed them to ease their way to the Elite Eight where they were nipped in a rematch with UCLA.
2006-07 saw the Tigers lock up a 2 seed after losing in non-conference to unranked Georgia Tech, unranked Tennessee, and 9th ranked Arizona. Their lone top 25 win came at the hands of a #20 Kentucky Wildcat squad who were already on a skid out of the polls. Memphis' annual win at Gonzaga was jaded by the Zags failing to get themselves ranked most of the year. Memphis then blasted their way through C-USA (now without Mike Anderson at UAB -- more on him later), earning a 2 seed which again provided a proverbial cakewalk to the Elite Eight where they were dismantled by Ohio St.
2007-08 -- ok, I'll give the media this one. Memphis was a great team and deserved that #1 seed. Besides their annual shellacking of Gonzaga (who were unranked again that year) Memphis lost only to #2 Tennessee and beat #24 USC, #5 Georgetown, #17 Arizona, swept their poopy conference, and aside from a 2nd round scare with Mississippi St blazed a path to the National Championship game in the NCAA tournament finally succumbing to Kansas in a tightly contested game that went into overtime and saw Memphis' achilles heel, the poor free-throw shooting, bite them in the rear. Great season though. The best of Calipari's career. Too bad the entire season was ripped away from the record books when the NCAA discovered star-player Derrick Rose had a stand-in take his SATs. And I'm sure ol' John Cal knew nothing about it (just like the trouble he got UMass in).
2008-09, John Cal's final year with the Tigers was perhaps the most intriguing to me in terms of ranking/seeding/expectations. Memphis lost to unranked Xavier, NIT-bound Georgetown, and #11 Syracuse in non-conference play. Their one win over a ranked opponent? #18 Gonzaga! Surprise! I remember watching the end of the C-USA Tournament (which several unbiased broadcasters correctly nick-named the "Memphis Invitational") where the Tigers swept the murky conference for the 3rd straight year and listening to the interview with Calipari where he was asked what seed he thought Memphis deserved. He said "one of one", meaning #1 overall. HA! Based on what, I ask you Sir!? One win against a ranked team (the annual gimmie) and sweeping a conference so horrible that no national network would touch a game your team isn't involved in!? Give me a break! The end result, Memphis gets a 2 seed (which was more than generous) with just about every on-air "expert" picking the Tigers to make it to the Elite Eight and defeat #1 overall seeded Louisville, head to the Final Four and eventually challenge North Carolina for the title. And what happened? Memphis fell in round 3 to who? Mike Anderson and the Missouri Tigers. Fitting end to an overrated season as well as an overrated era in college basketball. And I guarantee you had Mike Anderson stayed at UAB, Memphis would have never compiled a three-year win streak in C-USA. He was the only other quality coach in the league (hence him getting the offer from Mizzou) and gave Calipari his share of headaches over the years.
So now John Cal is the head honcho of Kentucky basketball and the highest paid collegiate hoops coach in the nation. Hey, that's great. I'm glad UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart got the guy he wanted (after Billy Donovon turned him down for the 2nd time). I hope Calipari brings the Wildcats back to national prominence. From a UofL/UK rivalry standpoint it'll be nice to have the Pitino/Calipari wars reignited and see that game mean something again. But, for those who have already branded John Cal as king of the bluegrass and are betting the farm (no pun intended) that UK will dominate next year and retain their title of winningest program of all-time..........you're getting a little ahead of yourselves. Maybe even a lot.
A Cat fan on a popular local forum I often frequent recently pondered the question: "Why does (North Carolina) who has top pick of all the best talent every year still trail Kentucky in (all-time) victories?"
The answer -- because UNC didn't become a consistent power program until the Dean Smith era in the 60's, over 30 years after Adolph Rupp began his mighty reign as emperor of UK. That's a LOT of catching up to do.
He also balked: "And with our new coach they'll continue to trail!"
Wanna bet??? Unless UK gets it going, and I mean QUICK -- they're gonna become the 2nd winningest program next year. UNC only trails UK by four victories after their title win last Monday and Roy Williams is averaging 30 wins a season over the past five years. UK has only broke 30 once in the last decade.
John Cal is a good coach and better suited for UK than Gillispie was. He has established solid recruiting ties and his dribble-drive style of ball should entertain the Big Blue Nation as long as he's winning and not only gets them back to the big dance, but takes them DEEP. But his resume from the competitive years of C-USA doesn't stack up so well when thinking of the grand expectations in Lexington. Three NIT's, two early exits from the NCAA, and no conference titles ain't gonna get it done out there. He'd be gone well before he could stink up the place to that degree. BUT! The good news is UK's league, the Southeastern conference (SEC), isn't the stellar cast of elite level programs as it was in the 90's when Rick Pitino was resurrecting the program. As a matter of fact, these days it isn't too far from the likes of C-USA when you get right down to it so that bodes well. Calipari's success seems to be measured by the difficulty of the conference he coaches in. Look at the info provided in this piece about the dark years of C-USA. Look at the gimpy Atlantic 10 conference during his UMass days. Then, look at C-USA's competitive years. Then finally, look at Calipari's brief stint in the NBA as head coach of the New Jersey Nets. Fired in the first half of his 3rd year for leading the team to a 3-17 record (yes, much worse than Pitino at the Celtics). Ouch.
So, it breaks down like this IMO. If the SEC stays down, UK will be back -- almost guaranteed. If the league rebounds into anything near the mold of years passed, maybe not. The combination of UK & John Calipari has the potential of eventually putting the coach over as one of the all-time greats, but to those who feel he's already cemented himself in that class of certified, grade A, battled-tested legends and it's gonna be clockwork getting the Kentucky program back to where the rabid fans want it.........not so fast. He still has a lot to prove. He couldn't even smell the top 5 list of active winningest coaches until that four year cupcake stretch in C-USA. That era built the name he's currently living on (and raking in the millions with). Only time will tell if he's truly ready to step up to the plate and fill the hefty shoes waiting for him at the place people used to call the roman empire of college basketball.