It’s been eight years since Kentucky hired John Calipari from Memphis. And it not only changed Kentucky basketball and the SEC, but the entire landscape of college basketball.
Calipari’s second-seeded Memphis was coming off a fresh Sweet Sixteen defeat to third-seeded Missouri. A loss that came one season after a heart-breaking defeat to Kansas for the championship. In 2008 Calipari’s Memphis Tigers, led by freshman sensation Derrick Rose, had an extraordinary game against the Jayhawks. One that will probably be remembered best by Mario Chalmers’ game-tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime.
It wasn’t only that the Jayhawks won the game (75-68). For the Tigers, their 38 regular season wins and Final Four appearance had to be vacated due to the academic ineligibility of Rose. After Calipari’s 2008-09 team went 33-4 (16-0), they went into the 2009 NCAA tournament as C-USA champions. They had earned themselves a two-seed, and were ready to mount another Final Four charge. That road stopped in Glendale, Arizona when the Memphis Tigers fell to the Missouri Tigers (102-91).
Like his predecessor Derrick Rose, Freshman sensation Tyreke Evans was sure to be an NBA top-five pick. But after the NCAA handed down its ruling regarding Rose, they also slapped Memphis with a three-year postseason tournament suspension. With his star player going to the NBA and a three-year suspension looming, Kentucky—a blue-blood program from the all-powerful SEC—offered him the most lucrative contract in college basketball history. In March of 2009, Calipari accepted Kentucky’s offer. Thus began the resurgence of one of the most accomplished basketball programs in the country.
Under Tubby Smith and Rick Pitino, the Wildcats were one of the nation’s best basketball programs from. From 1994-2006 they were everything you could want, and more. But after four consecutive early tournament exits, Calipari had the task of bringing Kentucky back.
In his first season, he had arguably one of the best-ever Kentucky teams. A team led by freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton. Eventually, all were drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. The team went 35-3 (14-2), finishing second in the nation (AP). They won their first two tournament games by more than 30. Then, defeated Cornell in the Sweet Sixteen by 17. This time, their ended in the Elite Eight at the hands of West Virginia (73-66).
Calipari’s second season featured a less successful regular season. But, his Wildcats finally reached the Final Four. This team featured future NBA studs Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Enes Kanter. But, they eventually fell to future NBA superstar and college basketball icon Kemba Walker in a closely-contested semi-final (56-55). Connecticut would go on to beat Butler in the National Title game.
In 2012, the Wildcats finally scaled the top of the NCAA mountain. With phenomenal freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague, Kentucky dominated. They were 38-2 (16-0) and No. 1 in the country for 10 out of 18 weeks. They defeated four AP Top 25 teams in the tournament, including No. 6 Kansas in the championship game (67-59). Anthony Davis had a stat line of 6 points and 16 rebounds with a game-high 5 assists, 3 steals and 6 blocks.
The following season, however, was the worst of Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. The Wildcats fell to 21-12 (12-6), ultimately missing out on the NCAA tournament altogether. To add insult to injury, Kentucky was bounced in their first game of the SEC tournament and NIT.
Kentucky’s failure was short-lived, though. What followed was another deep run in the NCAA tournament. This time led by James Young, Dakari Johnson, the Harrison twins and the unstoppable Julius Randle, Kentucky went 22-9 in 2013-2014. But, they fell in both the SEC Championship Game (Florida) and the National Championship Game (UConn… once again).
With Kentucky back on track, Calipari and Big Blue put together one of the best seasons in NCAA history—a perfect 34-0 during the regular season and SEC tournament. Unsurprisingly, they were ranked No. 1 throughout the entire season (AP). As an undefeated major conference champion, Kentucky rolled past the first three rounds only to narrowly escape Notre Dame (68-66) in the Elite Eight.
Going into the Final Four, Kentucky was tasked with the AP No. 3 and fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin. The Badgers were rolling with players such as: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes. Kentucky, however, had another unbelievable lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns (first overall pick), Willie Cauley-Stein (sixth overall pick), Trey Lyles (12th overall pick), Devin Booker (13th overall pick), Andrew Harrison (second round, 14th pick) and Dakari Johnson (second round, 18th pick). It seemed like it was just going to be their year.
Even with the perfect record, incredible talent and experienced coach, they were no match for Wisconsin (71-64). Wisconsin then lost in the National Championship Game to Duke (68-63).
Although they notched another SEC tournament championship, last season was not a memorable one for the Wildcats. They finished 26-8, and after a comfortable 85-57 win against Stony Brook, were handed an early exit. Their rival, the Indiana Hoosiers, took them down (73-67) in the Round of 32.
This season, Kentucky looks poised for another deep run. They were 26-5 going into the SEC Tournament. And with the help of remarkable freshmen De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk, the Wildcats sealed their 30th conference tournament championship. But also, their 49th regular season championship. The first two rounds for Kentucky have been hard-fought and their next battle—against the UCLA powerhouse—won’t be any easier. Both teams are hot and on a collision course for a classic Sweet Sixteen matchup.
If the Wildcats were to win Friday, it would be their 37th Elite Eight appearance. Or, their fifth in Calipari’s eight seasons—more than any other coach since 2009.
That’s where the magic of Calipari and Kentucky basketball goes just under the radar. In order to make it to the Elite Eight, a team obviously needs to make the tournament. They also need to win. Consistently. While those two first games might be closer to warm-up games than challenges, the upsets are always waiting to crush any major conference powerhouse.
The upsets have usually escaped Coach Cal’s Wildcats, though. Even last year when Kentucky lost in the second round, it was to a rival (a 14th-ranked Hoosiers team) and a tournament 5-seed. Any team can show up ready to play a powerhouse, but to consistently take care of business of the higher-seeded team is underappreciated. For example: Middle Tennessee, Rhode Island, Xavier, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
After those first two games, the first challenge of a UCLA-like team awaits. Usually by the Elite Eight, pretenders and Cinderellas have been knocked out. The teams that are contenders have persevered through the upsets, injuries and suspensions. Not to mention, the other great teams they fought to get there.
Calipari’s Wildcats are the model of consistency in modern college basketball. If Kentucky muster up two more wins this season by defeating UCLA and the winner of North Carolina/Butler, it would be Coach Cal’s fifth Final Four appearance in eight seasons. Again, the most of any since his first year with Kentucky in 2009.
Kentucky’s rise from the 2009 NIT quarterfinals loss to four Final Fours in five years is a result of the extraordinary players. It’s a reflection of Calipari’s recruiting and the way he coaches his teams. While he’s not exactly a household name like Krzyzewski, Williams, Smith, Pitino, Knight or Wooden because of their success over decades, it would not be surprising to see Calipari mentioned in the same conversation as some of those greats a few more years down the line.
Since Calipari’s first season in 2009, Kentucky has accomplished:
- 5 Conference Regular Season Appearances.
- 5 Conference Tournament Championships.
- 7 NCAA tournament appearances.
- 6 Sweet Sixteen appearances.
- 5 Elite Eight appearances.
- 4 Final Four appearances.
- 2 National Championship Games.
- 1 National Title.
Does he need more titles, or can we recognize the stellar job he’s done despite only winning one?