Calipari recalls the one that got away
NEW ORLEANS -- John Calipari said he has never watched a replay of his Memphis team's overtime loss to Kansas in the 2008 NCAA title game. He can't.
Calipari doesn't own the tape.
"It was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane," Calipari said. "So I have never looked at that tape. Nor will I."
Bill Self isn't sure the story is true. But whenever the Kansas coach hears it, his response is always the same.
"I'll tell him, 'I can remind you exactly what's on it,'" Self said. "We joke about it. It's all in good fun."
Maybe for Self and the Jayhawks, but what occurred inside San Antonio's Alamodome on April 7, 2008 has haunted Calipari for the past four seasons.
Just when it appeared Calipari was about to win his first NCAA title, Kansas erased Memphis' nine-point lead in the final 2 minutes, 12 seconds of regulation and forced overtime on Mario Chalmers' 3-pointer at the buzzer.
KU coasted in the extra period and won 75-68 in what was easily the most painful loss of Calipari's career. Not that he'll admit it.
"I haven't spent much time thinking about it," Calipari said. "I've moved on."
Quite nicely, in fact.
Calipari left Memphis one year later for Kentucky, where he has assembled arguably one of the greatest teams in college basketball history. Along with giving the Wildcats their first national title since 1998, a victory over Kansas on Monday would allow Calipari to exorcise some of the demons that surfaced the last time he faced Self and the Jayhawks in the finals.
"Everything that could've gone wrong went wrong," Calipari said Sunday. "Everything they had to do right, they did.
"The stars and the moon lined up, and all of a sudden we went to overtime."
Falling in the NCAA title game would've been painful enough, but the way Memphis lost to Kansas made the setback even more difficult to stomach. While most people credit KU for having the toughness to make a valiant comeback, there are those who say the Tigers lost the game more than Kansas won it.
Or more simply, that Memphis choked.
The Tigers appeared to have the game won after a pair of free throws by Robert Dozier made it 60-51 with 2:12 remaining. But instead of floundering in the face of adversity, Kansas flourished.
Forward Darrell Arthur hit a pair of difficult, guarded jump shots -- one from 18 feet and another that rattled in from the baseline -- to help shave Memphis' lead. And point guard Sherron Collins stole an inbounds pass under his own basket and hit a 3-pointer from the left corner.
"They were getting tight," Collins told ESPN.com on Sunday. "For most of the game, they were scoring. They were loose. But during our comeback, they got tight. They were passing up open shots or over-dribbling, forcing shots. You could tell they were feeling the pressure."
Especially from the foul stripe.
Memphis missed three free throws in the final 10 seconds, including one by Derrick Rose that would've sealed the victory. Instead, KU had the ball trailing 63-60 with one more chance to tie.
"If they'd have hit one more free throw, it'd have been a different game," Collins said.
Instead, Collins took the inbounds pass, raced up the court and flicked the ball to Chalmers, who drained a guarded 3-pointer from the right wing with 4 seconds remaining. Collins, who was being guarded by Rose, was falling as he dished off to Chalmers. He said he heard Calipari yelling to Rose from the sideline to foul.
"Honestly, I think he fouled me," Collins said. "The refs didn't call it. That's why I almost lost the ball. He gave me a nice little bump or shove. That knocked me off pace a little bit. Somehow I managed to get it to Mario, but I still think they were trying to foul."
As the horn sounded, Collins said he looked at Memphis' players and had no doubt that his team would win in overtime.
"We knew the game was over," he said. "They were deflated. We'd taken everything out of them. We'd taken their best shot. They had the game in their hands and they let it slip away. We came out in overtime and ran the same play eight or nine times in a row. It didn't matter.
"Watching them standing there after the game, with that confetti falling all over them I know that had to hurt."
Upset as he was about the loss, Calipari did his best not to show it. He went back to the team hotel that night, had dinner with his family and staff and chatted with mentor Larry Brown. He never complained publicly about the officials not calling the foul on Rose and he refused to dwell on the defeat in subsequent years.
If anything, he spun it into a positive.
A significant portion of Calipari's motivational book, "Bounce Back," is devoted to the Kansas loss and how he handled himself in its aftermath.
"Cal has been coaching so long at so many different levels," said UMass coach Derek Kellogg, an assistant on Memphis' 2008 staff. "He realizes that, sometimes, stuff just happens. You've just got to put it behind you and move on."
Calipari has done just that.
As good of a coach as he was in 2008, he's even better in 2012. This Kentucky team is much more talented than the Memphis squad that reached the title game four years ago. And Kansas isn't nearly as good as it was then, although victories over North Carolina and Ohio State have certainly caught the Wildcats' attention.
"They're here for a reason," guard Darius Miller said. "It's not by mistake. They beat a lot of good teams and they're capable of beating us, too."
If there was ever a year Calipari was going to win an NCAA title, this would appear to be it.
"He's ultra-competitive," Kellogg said. "I know he'd love to win a national championship. In other people's mind, that's something that a lot of the great coaches are judged by. Cal isn't one to dwell on that stuff or worry about it quite like other coaches.
"But when you've been in that situation many times and you know you'll be in it many more times, knocking one off is the ultimate goal."
Kellogg attended Kentucky's practice Friday afternoon. He has known Calipari for years, but even he was surprised about how "loose" Calipari was despite all the pressure surrounding him and his team.
"He's amazing," Kellogg said. "He just seemed normal, like nothing was weighing on him or bothering him."
Perhaps that's truly the case.
Although he said his family and friends are nervous for him and praying for him, Calipari insisted Sunday that he doesn't need an NCAA title to legitimize his legacy. Win or lose Monday, he said he'll be fine.
"If my legacy is decided by one game, it won't be me deciding it," Calipari said. "It will be someone else."