John Calipari faces burden of having to win it all
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It’s your Dance, John Calipari.
This is your NCAA tournament. All you have to do is win it – nothing more, and especially nothing less.
It’s not necessarily now or never. But it’s absolutely now. In 20 years as a college head coach, you’ve never had a better chance to win a national title.
Wednesday, you named off the great teams you’ve coached – Massachusetts 1996, Memphis 2008, Kentucky 2010 and ’11. All came close to winning it all. None finished the deal. None had the advantages this one enjoys.
You have the best team, which is the most important thing of all.
Your seven-man rotation is nothing but NBA prospects, one through seven, including a couple of top-five picks. Don’t bother with the “young team” line because every coach in America would love to be burdened with the youth of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
You have the healthiest team of all the No. 1 seeds. North Carolina is hoping leading rebounder and No. 3 scorer John Henson recovers from a wrist injury in the ACC tournament, and the Tar Heels already are playing without two guards who blew out their knees, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland.
Michigan State is without second-leading rebounder and fourth-leading scorer Branden Dawson, done with a knee injury. Syracuse is not dealing with injury, but is without ineligible center and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo. Your Wildcats? Not so much as a hangnail.
You have the requisite tourney experience, and that’s important, too – only one of the past 12 national championships have been won by a coach participating in his first Final Four. That was Kansas’ Bill Self, and you were on the receiving end of that one, John. You’ve been to three Final Fours*, so you know the drill. (*Only one of which still counts, per NCAA records and rules.)
You have a good draw. Nobody will have a more dominant home-away-from-home-court advantage in the first two rounds than your Wildcats. There were about 8,000 Kentucky fans in the Yum! Center for your open practice Wednesday – a crazy number, but par for the crazy course with Big Blue. Expect at least double that in the 22,000-seat arena Thursday when you play 16-18 Western Kentucky.
Everyone is anticipating a round-of-32 clash with defending national champion Connecticut, but there’s no guarantee the underachieving Huskies beat Iowa State. After that is a possible revenge game with Indiana in the Sweet 16 – and it’s difficult to envision the Hoosiers beating this team twice. Then it could be a showdown with Duke in the Elite Eight. Indiana and the Blue Devils, as luck would have it, also are dealing with key injuries (Verdell Jones III and Ryan Kelly, respectively).
You took a loss at the right time, in the SEC tournament final. I suggest sending Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings a fruit basket for doing you the favor. If there was any false sense of security in your locker room, it should be gone after that. With single elimination ahead, there’s no better time for a team to be aware of its mortality. And the pressure of a bloated winning streak is gone as well.
So the planets have aligned. Hard work, sustained excellence and good fortune have all intersected here and now. With that comes the towering expectations of your passionate fan base – and with those expectations comes pressure.
[Dan Wetzel podcast: NCAA tournament favorites could be undone by upstarts]
You were asked whether simply enjoying the ride will be enough for everyone this season. You said it would.
“It’s going to be enough for them and for me,” you said. “Let’s go for it. Let’s play and let’s do our best. Let’s play – play great. If we play great and that’s not good enough, what? What?”
Here’s what: The worm will turn. The three-year love-in between fans and coach will get a little frosty.
This tournament will be a referendum on the Calipari Method: Namely, can you win national titles with the constant roster churn of one-and-done superstars?
If the answer is yes, and these Wildcats finish the job and win the school’s first national title in 14 years, then you’re king of the world. You can keep going after the top 1 percent of prospects every year and the fans will love it. They’ve been thrilled with the recruiting coups that came and went – from John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe to Brandon Knight to, potentially, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist – but eventually there has to be a championship payoff.
Welcome to eventually. Nobody in Kentucky is thinking second place this spring.
[Y! Sports Radio: Pat Forde’s hits and misses for the NCAA tournament]
If the Calipari Method doesn’t yield a title this season, when your team is the obvious favorite, the grumbling will start. You’ll hear about the need for roster stability. The need for more veterans to handle the pressure of March. The need for more role players sprinkled in among the lottery picks.
The stakes are high. Not just for this season and this team, but for continuing on the current program path. The pressure is there.
“I’m feeling like I always feel,” you said. “Let’s do this. Let’s go [one] game at a time. Let’s go [one] possession at a time. And let me try to get my team playing as well as they can play. That’s the pressure I’m feeling, but I feel it every time I bring a team in this tournament.”
None of the previous 19 tournaments you’ve coached in have presented themselves for the taking like this one, John Calipari. It’s right here, right now.
Related NCAA tournament video on Yahoo! Sports:
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Randy Moss lands with San Francisco 49ers, proves tall wideouts will always be in demand
• Baseball icon Tommy Lasorda still wildly popular at 84
• Cagewriter: Time has come for UFC, Rampage Jackson to part ways
• Y! Finance: Secrets to NCAA tourney success are much like investing