A familiar foe stands in Calipari's way

Originally Published: March 25, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- When he was hired nearly three years ago to the day, John Calipari told Kentucky fans, "I do not walk on water. I do not have a magic wand."

Silly man. Big Blue Nation doesn't care if he can keep his feet dry. Or if he can channel his inner Harry Potter. All that really matters is if he can climb a ladder next Monday evening in New Orleans and operate a pair of scissors.

If you see him waving a snipped piece of net that night, it means Kentucky has won its first national championship since 1998. Calipari won't have to fly back to Lexington; UK followers will carry him there on their shoulders.

The Wildcats are two wins away from the title, so there is work still to be done. Maybe that's why Calipari didn't make the eight-step trip up the ladder after UK's 82-70 dissection of Baylor in Sunday's South Regional final. Baylor, by the way, played the part of the biology class frog.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Paul Abell/US PresswireJohn Calipari embraced his wife Ellen after Sunday's victory over Baylor. For Cal and Kentucky, the pressure will be intense over the next week.

This wasn't a game as much as it was an affirmation. Kentucky began the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and then won its next four games by 15, 15, 12 and 12 points -- the first team since 2009 champ UNC to win its first four tourney games by double digits.

When the Cats land in New Orleans later this week, they'll do so as the clear favorites to win the Final Four.

"Are we the favorite?" said a clearly exhausted Calipari in an empty locker room at the Georgia Dome. "Wowwww. That's a good thing, I guess."

It's a very good thing because it means the Wildcats so far have lived up to every ridiculous expectation placed on them. There are times when you watch this team -- such as when UK turned a 10-5 Baylor lead into a 21-10 Baylor deficit (all in less than five minutes) -- that you have to re-attach your jaw to its hinges. BU coach Scott Drew put it nicely.

"Well, I think in coaching you get done playing a team and the first thing you think is, are they what you thought?" Drew said. "This team's actually better than I thought."

But now comes the hard part for Calipari. He has the best players and the best chance to win it all. But since when does that guarantee anything?

Calipari almost has to return to Lexington with a national championship. If he doesn't, fairly or unfairly, the whispers will become shouts: His one-and-dones can't get it done … he needs to recruit players who aren't infatuated with the NBA … he can't win the big one.

In a bizarre, wonderful twist of bracket fate, Calipari will have to go through old nemesis Rick Pitino and in-state non-rival (according to Calipari) Louisville. For this, we should thank the basketball gods.

"Me personally, I've been at Kentucky three years," Calipari said. "I've said it all along: We play them one time a year and we're not in the same league. Why do you guys [UK followers] get all worked up? And then they go crazy. Are you out of your mind?

"It's a ball game we've got to play. When do we play? Friday? Saturday? When's the game?"

It's next Saturday, the national semifinal. I can't imagine a TV set in the Commonwealth being tuned to anything but that game.

Kentucky fans are as patient as 3-year-olds. They know what they want, when they want it and they're not interested in excuses. I saw a UK fan wearing a T-shirt that said it all: We Want Eight.

As in, an eighth national title.

Calipari was hired and paid wheelbarrows full of money to win Final Fours. Nothing else matters. Grad rates and diplomas are nice, but UK followers prefer championship banners hanging from the rafters of Rupp Arena. Pitino gave them one in 1996, Tubby Smith one in 1998. Since then, zilch.

This will be Kentucky's second consecutive Final Four appearance under Calipari. You only get so many chances and at some point the one-and-done player model used by Calipari is going to suffer an ankle sprain.

But right now, you won't find a better team or a better coach. Calipari has elite players, but it's not like he rolls out the ball and then goes to watch the two-hour premiere of "Mad Men."

He nearly dug a trough in front of the UK bench with his constant pacing -- and that was with Kentucky up by 17 with four minutes left to play. Just think how he'll be against Pitino and U of L.

"I'm just worried about us playing at our best," said Calipari, who has taken three different programs to Final Fours. "If that's not good enough, it's been a heck of a season."

Big Blue Nation isn't interested in heck of a seasons. It's interested in beating Pitino (who left UK for the pros and later returned to coach Louisville) and then beating either Ohio State or Kansas in the championship game.

"We know how it feels to lose and we don't want to feel that way again," said UK senior Darius Miller, referring to last year's national semifinal defeat to UConn.

There will be some serious word games played this coming week. Pitino will reference the "excellence" of UK basketball and Calipari will compliment Louisville's unexpected ability to reach a Final Four. But none of it will be said with warmth.

[+] EnlargePitino-Calipari
AP Photo/James CrispTo win a national title, Calipari and Big Blue will have to go through former UK coach Rick Pitino.

Calipari and Pitino can't stand each other. They once were on friendly terms, but the relationship has deteriorated beyond recognition.

"We don't send each other Christmas cards, but if I see him in public and I'm recruiting, we'll spend some time," said Calipari when asked about Pitino. "But it's fine."

A questioner persisted. "Friends? Acquaintances?"

"Friendly acquaintances," Calipari said. "I don't know."

Pitino likes to remind people that he helped get Calipari hired at Rick's alma mater, UMass, in 1988. Calipari likes to remind people that the story isn't entirely true.

And 20 years ago (the anniversary is Monday) in a building that no longer exists, Pitino's UK team beat Calipari and Massachusetts in the East Regional semifinal. Had the Minutemen won, there would have never been The Shot by Christian Laettner in the regional final at the Spectrum.

The two coaches have a history together. And a grudge against one another. Pitino said Saturday that a Louisville win against UK would cause nervous breakdowns among Wildcats fans.

"They've got to put the fences up on bridges," he said. "There will be people consumed by Louisville."

Countered former UK guard Anthony Epps, who played for Pitino: "Yes, you probably would have to put fences up on bridges if Louisville were to pull the upset. But if we beat them, they'll probably have to put some fences along the Ohio River so their people won't jump in as well."

Meanwhile, Calipari wants no part of the Rick versus Cal storyline. He didn't climb that ladder Sunday afternoon because, he said, "It's not about me."

Sorry, but this week it is. And if he wins it all, Calipari won't need a ladder to reach the nets.

He'll just float up there.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Last Great Game," focuses on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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