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Sunday, April 1, 2012
Plenty at stake for UK's John Calipari

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Final Four washout or first-time champion? Overpaid or underappreciated? One-and-done specialist or dynasty builder?

There is no middle ground for Kentucky coach John Calipari. He either wins a national title against underdog Kansas or he doesn't. And if he doesn't, then the doubts and questions will begin to bubble to the surface throughout Big Blue Nation.

Calipari will leave the Superdome in the wee hours of Tuesday morning as a failure or as the guy who led UK from the desert. Kentucky hasn't won one of these things since 1998 and Wildcats fans are tired of Final Four dry mouth.

John Calipari
John Calipari seeks to lead UK to its first national title in 14 years.

Pressure? Calipari said he doesn't notice it.

"No, I was dancing in the breakfast room this morning," Calipari said. "I'm fine. This isn't about me. I'm good. My thing is how do I get my team to play its best?"

His UK legacy? He shrugs his shoulders in disinterest.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "If my legacy is decided on one game, it won't be me deciding it. It will be everybody else."

No program has made more NCAA tournament appearances, played in more NCAA tournament games and recorded more NCAA tournament victories. Only UCLA has won more national championships.

So you can understand why Calipari is under some duress. Given his nearly $5.4 million salary package, the Death Star brand power of Kentucky basketball, the state-of-the-art facilities and the recruiting tentacles that stretch from one coast to the next, UK followers expect Calipari to win. In many ways, they demand it.

Calipari knows this. He has become the latest BCNTHWAT -- Best Coach Never To Have Won A Title. At Kentucky, that's not an acronym you want stuck to the bottom of your shoe heel for very long.

"To think you need to win an NCAA championship to validate yourself is kind of silly," said Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame and former KU coach whose Jayhawks' staff once included Calipari and Bill Self. "So many of those detractors, they want to find some fault in him."

Nothing has come easy for Calipari this postseason, except wins. He has assembled a Wildcats team with as many as three NBA lottery picks and six total draft choices. The starting lineup is frighteningly young (three freshmen and two sophomores) and frighteningly gifted. When everything clicks into place, UK has no basketball peer.

But you can't swing Ashley Judd without finding a demon for Calipari to face during this tournament. The list is as long as Anthony Davis' wingspan.

Calipari has had to deal with the constant expectations that hover over the UK program like fog over the Bay Area. He's the first to say that Kentucky fans are the best in the country, but "crazy." (There were couch burnings in Lexington after Saturday night's national semifinal win against rival Louisville.) He's also the first to say that he's fine with their basketball obsessions.

"It's not for everybody," said Calipari of the Kentucky experience. "Every game we play is someone's Super Bowl."

He has had to address the blowback from recruiting so many one-and-done players, such as freshman Davis, who will leave UK as the consensus national player of the year and the consensus choice to become the No. 1 player in the 2012 NBA draft. If Kentucky somehow loses to Kansas, then Calipari's recruiting model will come under even more scrutiny.

He has had to overcome his in-state adversary, Rick Pitino. Calipari defeated Pitino's Louisville team, but Pitino still has something that Calipari doesn't: a national title, won in 1996 at UK.

And now he has to beat Self, whose 2008 Kansas team won it all -- and beat Calipari's Memphis Tigers, in overtime, to do it. Calipari said he has never watched the game tape of that loss, nor will he. He threw it out the window of the team bus that night.

Wildcats head coach John Calipari
Calipari seems unfazed by the constant questions about "validation" and "legacy."

During Sunday's news conferences, Kentucky's players were asked what it would mean to them if they left New Orleans with a national championship. Calipari stepped in before they could answer.

"We're not thinking about that right now," he said.

Of course, they're thinking about it. How can they not be? And somewhere in the back of his mind, so is Calipari.

"If it happens, it does," he said. "I swear to you, yeah, you know, it would be nice. But my friends and family are praying. I'm not. If I keep doing right by the kids, good things will happen for all of us."

Brown is one of those friends. He was imbedded with Self's Kansas program the last three weeks and even spent time in the KU locker room after the Jayhawks beat Ohio State in the national semis. He flew home to Philadelphia on Sunday morning because he couldn't bear to watch a Self-Calipari matchup in person on Monday. He'll watch on TV and root for both of his friends.

But Self has a national championship ring while Calipari has taken the title oh-fer. Three Final Fours with three different programs (UMass, Memphis and UK), but no title.

"I've been trying to tell John -- and his friends know this -- that winning the NCAA title is not the most important thing in your life," Brown said. "He might not admit it, but I know it's important to John. It's an unbelievable accomplishment just to get there. And if he doesn't do it this year, he'll do it next year or the next year after that."

Next season will be the 75-year anniversary of the Final Four. The NCAA is already talking about honoring the remaining living coaches who have won those national championships.

Will Calipari be one of those coaches? For his sake, it would be helpful.

Kentucky is big on title banners, not patience.