Questions for John Calipari, Take Two. Four weeks ago, I took the Kentucky basketball coach to task because he appeared to be abdicating responsibility in the midst of a massively underachieving season. That column can be read here. It was harsh, and there were a lot of Kentucky fans who agreed with it – no matter what they're saying now – because I heard from them.
Today, with a Final Four berth in hand, it's appropriate and fair to praise him in the same fashion. So let me ask a few things:
How did you do it, Cal?
How did you get a team that couldn't beat 14-20 South Carolina on March 1 to regroup like that?
How did you turn four weeks in March into a triumph of tournament coaching?
How did a dysfunctional unit go on a tear that has it closing in on my Best Case Scenario for this NCAA tournament?
How did you get them to believe that the postseason was going to be different? There was "The Tweak," of course, going into the SEC tournament – but was that strategy or a psych job? Actually, never mind, it doesn't matter what it really was. The only thing that matters is that it worked.
How did you get a group that was swept by Arkansas – an NIT team – to win three straight blockbuster, epic, quien-es-mas-macho duels in the caldron of NCAA tournament pressure? How did you beat unbeaten Wichita State? How did you scramble back at the end to beat Louisville? How did you outshoot the brilliant bombers from Michigan?
How did your bunch of freshmen manage to make the key plays, while the experienced teams succumbed?
How did you get the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, playing like lottery picks? Remember when they had fallen completely off the draft boards, and when everyone was ripping their games, and when the consensus in the commonwealth was that Andrew's unproductive play was the biggest reason why Kentucky lost 10 games?
How did you get Aaron Harrison to become the teenage version of Big Shot Bob Horry? In Kentucky's last four regular-season losses, against Florida (at home and on the road), and at Arkansas and South Carolina, he went 10 for 42 from the field. Through four games in the NCAA tournament, he is 13 for 24 from behind the 3-point line and the four 3s he cold-bloodedly drained in the final four minutes against Michigan on Sunday – including the game-winner – will be remembered for decades by the Big Blue faithful.
How do you work such a radical makeover of two freshmen in virtually no time at all?
How did you get Julius Randle past his layup yips? How did you get James Young through his boom-and-bust cycles? How did you get your occasionally MIA centers to exert a dominant presence? How did you get Alex Poythress to be assertive all the time, as opposed to maybe 33 percent of the time?
Shoot, how did you get through two Midwest regional battles in Indianapolis with center Willie Cauley-Stein playing a total of four minutes? When he went down with an injury early against Louisville, that gave the Cardinals an opening – and they couldn't take advantage. It did the same for Michigan – and the Wolverines couldn't take advantage.
The biggest reason Michigan couldn't capitalize was the revelatory play of Marcus Lee – and let's talk about him for a minute, Cal. HOW ON EARTH did you get that performance out of Lee? The sell job must have been an all-timer. Until he suddenly became Blake Griffin on Sunday, Lee had the following stat line over the previous 10 games: five DNPs, zero points, two rebounds. Naturally, he shows up on the biggest stage of the year and dunks everything that comes off the rim (and a couple that didn't come off the rim, but that's a different subject). He puts up 10 points and eight rebounds and blocks two shots.
I'll be honest, Cal: I forgot Lee was on the team. But you clearly kept him engaged, kept him confident – and you trusted him early in a huge game. The response was the Kentucky version of Tim Henderson's two 3-pointers in the Final Four for Louisville last year against Wichita State. It was a season-saving performance nobody saw coming.
That is great coaching.
Now this needs to be said, too: You're going to the Final Four with a team that is 100 percent of your making, and a team that is almost completely dependent upon freshmen. After providing about 64 games of ammunition since the 2012 title to those who weren't sure one-and-done was a sustainable way to build a program, you've supplied a powerful rebuttal. Three Final Fours in four seasons says that your way works – it works better than any other way currently being implemented in college basketball.
You proved your point, and your team is still playing. How good does that feel?