Beware the ides of March

In Kentucky's quest for an NCAA title, the Wildcats must overcome John Calipari's history of failure

Updated: August 13, 2012, 8:22 PM ET
By Elena Bergeron | ESPN The Magazine

Kentucky Men's BasketballDustin SnipesSurprise: UK's top four scorers are underclassmen.

This story appears in the March 19, 2012 "Choke Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

I HOPE NO ONE AT THE NCAA READS THIS, but like most of America, I've bet on college basketball. But only once did that happen outside of a bracket challenge. I'd seen Memphis go to the Elite Eight in 2007 and watched Derrick Rose dominate the high school scene that same year. So just before Thanksgiving 2008, I walked into the Bellagio hotel's sports book and plunked down a scrawny $10 on Memphis, at plus-450, to win it all, figuring that as bookmakers followed the team's successes throughout the season, the odds would only get closer.

To be honest, I don't know a thing about betting, but the wizardry of the freshman from Chicago made it seem like I'd have $45 of found money by spring. It felt inevitable. Fast-forward four months, and with the title on the line and Memphis leading Kansas by nine with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left in the game, my resolute assurances started a slow fray.

Memphis swingman Antonio Anderson turned the ball over with a sloppy inbounds pass. Forward Joey Dorsey fouled out. Guard Chris Douglas-Roberts missed his three free throws and then, with 10.8 seconds left, Rose -- who had made 13 free throws in a row at the Final Four -- missed one that would have put Memphis up by four. The Tigers then watched KU run the floor before Mario Chalmers hit a game-tying three-pointer near the end of regulation. Memphis would lose in OT 75-68.

To be sure, it was an epic debacle. Yet no matter who deserves the blame, the sequence proved an age-old (bet-busting) tenet: Even a can't-miss contender can choke. Even several times. And no one knows that better than John Calipari. He's taken three different teams to Final Fours* (NCAA, there's your asterisk). Two of them, UMass and Memphis, were non-BCS programs. Four times (in 1996, 2006, '08 and '10) his teams entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed. He's also never won a national championship.

Sure, some of his tourney entrants were underdogs, lacking the mix of surefire talent and convincing record that mark the oddsmakers' (and selection committee's) favorites. Those teams went further than anyone expected. But among those that were favorites, it's tough to lay blame anyplace else but with Calipari for their lack of hardware. And, on the verge of coaching his fifth chalk favorite, he is fine with that. "This team has already been told: If you win, it's going to be about you, and if you lose, it'll be about me," he says. "So go play."

This year's Kentucky team has legit, anyone-can-see-how-good-they-are talent headlined by freshman Anthony Davis, the POY front-runner. Through February, the Wildcats defended better (58.2 points allowed, 36.3 percent opponents' FG), shot better (48.5 FG percent) and won by more (plus-19.4 ppg) than any other Calipari squad. This team also has his best effective shooting percentage (53.6 percent) and effective field goal defense (41.1 percent) since KenPom.com started tracking the stat in 2003. Statistically, they represent Calipari's best-ever shot at a title. And for any other program, that would be its biggest problem. Being that recognizably good for the course of a season draws attention and expectations, which is usually the surest way to unhinge a crew full of potential stars. But ego has never been why Calipari's teams fall short of a championship.

Almost everyone in Kentucky's current starting five has been told they were individually amazing for years, and none was ranked lower than 21st as a recruit coming out of high school. It was also that way at UMass and Memphis, where Calipari successfully lured players who ended up lottery picks sooner than later. On his four top-seeded teams, the players coalesced quickly and sped their way through seasons where they lost, at most, four times all year. Their records are all the more incredible considering that teams full of stars usually need a wake-up string of losses before they buy into the idea that they can't win games on individual talent alone.

This team has already been told: If you win, it's going to be about you, and if you lose, it'll be about me. So go play.

-- Kentucky coach John Calipari

That's the part of coaching Cal gets credit for: convincing potential prima donnas that playing together will create a bigger spotlight for everyone. For example, in a practice last month, Cal stood in blousy Nike gear at halfcourt, installing the offense for a game against Vanderbilt, a team that had zoned Kentucky in the past. Cal's practices are short -- hour and a half, tops -- to keep players from getting bogged down or losing focus. The team was coming off a close win over Mississippi State where starting freshman point guard Marquis Teague sat the bench during the game's deciding minutes. Teague, the country's fifth-ranked recruit out of Pike High School (Indianapolis) in 2011, and whose brother, Jeff, plays for the Atlanta Hawks, is certainly used to being on the floor during crunch time. But here, Teague is quiet running through plays; his demeanor on any given day makes him unreadable whether he's played 40 minutes or four. But midway through explaining, Cal stops his rapid-fire walk-through of a set that's supposed to create shooting options for three players and singles out one of them as the guy whose shot would shift the defense. "Marquis Teague doesn't play a bunch of minutes the game before," Calipari tells the team, his hand on Teague's shoulder. "He comes in and hits a couple threes. You know what that does to them [Vanderbilt]? This team, we got a lot of shooters." Teague's grin widens as Coach speaks. "I don't know how they'll play a zone."

We got a lot of shooters. The way Cal drags it out, all smug satisfaction, makes it sound like something rap star Rick Ross would say -- like he's got hip-hop hubris in his arsenal. But thanks to that line, Teague, a 19-year-old who may or may not have been smoldering, is clearly pumped to be part of the cache instead of secretly pouting about minutes.

While it's integral to his teams' success, this confidence in his players and their talents is also the easiest jab to make at Cal for not having won the big one. The knock is that Calipari's not really coaching them -- not X-and-O'ing enough to keep a team from falling apart when the season's on the line. But in reality, Calipari's teams are consistently among the country's most offensively efficient because they exploit the best matchup on the floor, like NBA teams do, and trust that the guys on their squad are good enough to win that scenario.

Calipari has continually tweaked his patented Dribble Drive Motion offense (more handoffs last year, more pick-and-roll now) to accommodate his players' strengths, rather than teaching players to fit into a tried-and-true -- and stilted -- system. So when his shooters suddenly go cold, even though they're seeing shots they're used to hitting, that philosophy can make it seem to critics as if the players are in charge instead of the coach.

For example, in 2006, Calipari's top-seeded Memphis team flunked the measly C-USA championship game (en route to an Elite Eight finish) when point guard Darius Washington missed two of three consecutive free throws. Later, Calipari told the media he wished he would've called a timeout before Washington's last attempt just so that, make or miss, he'd have gotten second-guessed for icing (or calming down) his own shooter instead of Washington being the goat. And again, after Rose's miss-and-make in '08, Memphis left the court with three timeouts in Calipari's pocket. "I take full responsibility," he says. "Things happened for them, things happened for us. I could've called a timeout; I chose not to. We were trying to foul on that last possession, but the guy got away from him."

Thing is, Calipari's assumption of responsibility isn't really admitting error. He's fond of saying that he has no proverbial rearview mirror, that he doesn't look back, that the day after a tourney loss he's getting players ready for the draft. He has never seen that title game on film, never brooded over the 2010 Elite Eight loss to West Virginia, hasn't learned anything new from running into UConn last season in the Final Four. That's because, even though he espouses regret in his postgames, he wouldn't do much differently. After all, why wouldn't you have your best players in a position to make those clutch plays? Kentucky assistant John Robic has been Calipari's top bench guy at all three schools, and he handles the scouting of every opponent. Like Cal, he hadn't seen the championship game until he had to watch it before Kentucky played Kansas last November. Sure enough, Robic remembered each play even before the DVD threw it up on-screen. What he doesn't remember is Cal ever thinking about stopping play. "That's not the way he coaches. I've been with him for 15 years," Robic says. "I don't know of an instance when he would've done that."

Instead, those games ended in the hands of his team's leaders for high-percentage shots -- by design. His player-centric approach puts his guys on display, which gives them confidence and unites them throughout the year. It also puts big moments on them. And if in those moments they fail, Calipari is happy to be the one who takes the fall. "He'd rather him hurt than they be hurt," Robic says. "There's no one who knows him better than I do, and that's genuinely what it would be."

It's a conspicuously softhearted stance for a guy so tenacious he used to pick the lock to his high school gym near Pittsburgh so that he could sneak in some extra shots. Calipari once broke his cheekbone in college, playing at D2 Clarion, and started wearing a wrestling mask so he could finish out the year. He was so desperate for an entry into coaching that when a volunteer assistant position opened at Kansas, Calipari left Clarion with one year of eligibility remaining and got his degree in Lawrence.

So knowing his competitive zeal and the intrinsic self-guessing that comes with multiple misses at the throne, it makes it hard not to call BS on Robic's verdict and Calipari's assertion that the losses don't bother him. "Not really," says Darius Miller, the senior who was in locker rooms for the West Virginia loss and last year's Final Four tank. "Right after, he talked to us about how proud he was of both those teams. He knew how much it hurt us. He didn't dwell on it, and I don't even think he said anything about it the next day."

Nothing to his players? Then certainly a man as demonstratively driven as Calipari must have anguished in private after repeated March flops and the hit they've given his coaching rep. It's only natural. "I did feel pressure," says Kansas coach Bill Self of his pretitle reputation, "not so much in winning a national championship, but I felt pressure because we had not been to a Final Four and we had been to four Elite Eights prior to winning our first national championship. I did feel pressure, with most of it being self-imposed."

But Calipari's a different coach, with a drive fueled by the belief that you can't chase the next championship when you're crying about the last one. There is also this: Despite all his successful teams and NBA pros, Calipari's official record is tenuous. When Kentucky celebrated his 500th win last spring, the NCAA made the school's president write a formal apology since 42 of those wins officially didn't occur. Ditto for two of those Final Fours. When your greatest career achievements don't count, you learn to focus on the things that will.

Calipari talks a lot about his legacy these days. In his third year at Kentucky, he's got a position that most coaches work toward their entire lives. Cal frequently, morbidly, comments that his tombstone will not have his record on it. In February, he turned 53 and joked that he was actually only 51 because two years had been vacated. Both make it clear he's thought about what his coaching career adds up to, knowing that the official tally is vague.

"Fifty years from now, people will look back, and none of the haters will be here, and none of the lovers will be here," Calipari says. "They'll look back and say how did his young people do that he coached? How did he leave the communities and the campuses where he worked? That'll be the legacy." Well, his victories at UMass and Memphis built new multimillion-dollar facilities at two non-BCS programs where his proteges now coach. And if all goes well, Calipari might get 15 players drafted in three seasons at UK. ("I tell guys, 'If you come here you have a better chance of getting drafted than being hit by lightning.'")

That reckoning works for Calipari, but Kentucky is the big time, and fans there are proud of concrete, tangible records. The school has, famously, the most wins of any college program. The Avenue of Champions runs through the heart of campus. And when Calipari called getting five of his players from the 2010 team drafted "the greatest day in the history of Kentucky's program," the alumni -- specifically former players and coaches like Dan Issel, Kyle Macy, Kevin Grevey and Joe B. Hall -- reminded him that it surely was not.

Calipari may mean it when he says he doesn't need a title to prove any points about his career. But even he admits that getting over the big-game hump will vindicate what he believes about starting freshmen and running a players-first program. "There are some people who are going to die if we win. They say, 'You can't do it with young kids' -- that's their story and they're sticking with it. If we win, what do they write? What do they say?"

Nothing. They'll be choking on crow.

Elena Bergeron is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.