Two coaches chasing validation

For John Calipari and Kevin Ollie, the chase of title means more than a trophy

Originally Published: April 7, 2014
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's silly, really, to say that 40 minutes of basketball proves anything other than that, in those particular 40 minutes, Team X was better than Team Y.

But we crown champions in sports and thus that championship has to mean something. It's supposed to mean that the last one standing is the best, but we all know that isn't always the case. Good teams lose on fluke plays, especially in the NCAA tournament, and the champion isn't always the best so much as it is the best at surviving.

So what will be the greater meaning when the confetti pours from the ceiling 5,000 miles above the Jerry's World court? What does it prove?

In reality, probably nothing. We should know by now that blanket pronouncements are dangerous things and have the shelf life of an unopened bottle of milk in a desert.

So maybe more than what the game will mean or prove, it's a matter of what it will do.

It's about validation.

It comes back to the coaches because in the revolving door of college hoops, it almost always comes back to the coaches. The validating is as much for them as their players, the blanket pronouncements frequently about their skills rather than their athletes'.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelJohn Calipari has relied heavily on freshmen. Now, those freshmen can deliver him another title.

There's always something to prove at Kentucky, where success is measured only in titles. And for John Calipari, this is a unique tournament. Two years ago we all left New Orleans as converts, believers in Calipari's seemingly mad notion that a basketball team could win with players whose previous March Madness experience came only in bracket pools.

The 2012 Kentucky team, with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, made even the most cynical one-and-done cynic at least pause. Talent, after all, does trump all, so why couldn't that method work?

And then 2013 happened, a troubled season that crumbled finally alongside Nerlens Noel on the Florida floor. The Wildcats didn't make the tournament, didn't even win an NIT game, and suddenly Calipari didn't look so smart or forward thinking. He looked more like a prospector, taking a gamble that he might strike gold.

The start of this season did little to change anyone's mind. The fans are all on board now, naturally, but there was at least a little discomfort if not flat-out angst a month or two ago when the wildest collection of basketball talent was slipping and sliding to the SEC dregs of South Carolina.

So now what do we do with this run, with a team that has caught fire at exactly the right time and looped together enough heart-stopping plays to make its own shining moment video?

If Kentucky should win Monday night that would be two titles in three years and only three players who can say they suited up for both (Jarrod Polson and walk-ons Sam Malone and Brian Long; Jon Hood missed the 2011-12 season with a torn ACL). The prospector will have struck gold twice, which is pretty hard to argue with. And the system, risky as it seems, would be validated. That doesn't mean it has to be for everyone. Calipari acknowledged that, but it would have to at least be recognized as a viable alternative.

"There's a lot of different ways to play this game and there's a lot of different ways to teach this game," he said Sunday afternoon.

Different is what Kevin Ollie is, of course. Different mostly from Jim Calhoun. There is certainly less pressure riding on a second-year coach who inherited a team with a postseason ban and a fleeing roster. No one expected miracles out of Ollie this quickly, so if there is such a thing as a national championship mulligan, he gets it.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportKevin Ollie has taken Connecticut in his own direction. But a title gains him more distance from his predecessor, Jim Calhoun.

For Ollie, this game isn't so much about what he can gain as what he can lose.

Namely the lingering old coach.

Calhoun doesn't necessarily have to actually go away, but his omnipresence in the stands, locker room and court does tend to eclipse some of his successor's light. It makes sense, of course. Calhoun is the Hall of Famer whom most of the guys on this UConn roster came to Storrs, Conn., to play for.

Ollie is understandably and rightfully respectful to Calhoun. He credits the man with most of his successes because it was, after all, Calhoun who recruited him out of Los Angeles, Calhoun who gave him a chance as an assistant coach and Calhoun who all but strong-armed him into an interim coaching gig that became a head-coaching job.

But this is Ollie's show now and it's time he stops being treated like the understudy. This national championship game is his chance. More people thought he was the wrong hire than the right one two years ago, an unproven coach in over his head, maybe even a puppet who would allow Calhoun to still pull the strings.

Certainly (hopefully?) no one believes that anymore. If this run has done anything, it has quelled the last lingering strains of Ollie's critics.

Still, it is one thing to be accepted and another to be adored. Ollie doesn't care about adulation, but a coach who wins a national championship is no one's understudy or wingman.

A title for him wouldn't prove anything. It wouldn't solve the riddle of life or carry any great meaning beyond what it would be -- a national championship.

But it would be a validation for him, just as it would be for Calipari.

And that is no small thing.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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