Wiedmer: Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari gets No. 1 NCAA title, finally

Wiedmer: Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari gets No. 1 NCAA title, finally

April 3rd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari

University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NEW ORLEANS -- The day before the NCAA championship game, Kansas coach Bill Self said of Kentucky: "They're probably one of the better teams we've had in college basketball from a pure talent standpoint."

When you've got six potential pros on your roster and three potential NBA lottery picks, there is little doubt about that.

But Wildcats coach John Calipari has had talent before -- at UMass, at Memphis and certainly during his three seasons at UK, where his first team two years ago produced five first-round draft choices.

Then again, he may never again have a talent like freshman Anthony Davis, who scored all of six points in the Wildcats' 67-59 victory in Monday night's NCAA title game but walked away with MVP honors.

"That's just one of the things that makes him great," teammate Terrence Jones said as "One Shining Moment" played on the Superdome's giant video boards and the Wildcats loyalists among the crowd of 70,913 refused to exit the site of the school's eighth national championship.

"Ant doesn't have to score to dominate a game."

Instead, he pulled down 16 rebounds, blocked six shots and led the Wildcats in assists with five and steals with three.

"That's our game," said point guard Marquis Teague, whose 14 points backed up teammate Doron Lamb's 22 for scoring honors. "No matter what else is working or isn't, we're always going to play defense."

They played defense so well that Kansas hit only 35.5 percent of its shots in the game and had 11 of them blocked.

A single play to showcase Davis' domination: In the final seconds, desperate to hit a 3-pointer to cut the margin to three, the Jayhawks' Elijah Johnson -- who finished with 13 points and hit three 3s -- started to shoot from the corner but was forced to stop when Davis stepped out to help, his 6-foot-9 frame and 7-5 wingspan spooking Johnson into a travel.

Game over.

It had looked over from early in the first half, as Kentucky roared to lead by 18 points, settling for a 14-point cushion (41-27) at the break.

And so the question of whether Coach Cal's latest collection of one-and-dones could finish No. 1 seemed already settled.

Calipari had professed throughout this tournament not to care. While never saying so, he knows that except for failing to winning it all he's accomplished more than almost any active coach not named Mike Krzyzewski.

He's one of only two coaches in the history of the sport to take three different schools to No. 1 -- the other being former St. John's/North Carolina/South Carolina great Frank McGuire.

He's also one of only two active coaches to take three different schools to the Final Four, the other being Louisville's Rick Pitino.

But none of that cuts Calipari much slack in some circles. They remember you for NCAA titles, and the 53-year-old Calipari had yet to win one heading into Monday night, despite having reached four Final Fours in his career.

At halftime that didn't seem a concern. The band The Fray had started things off with the national anthem, but the first half wasn't so much about both Kansas and Kentucky joining the fray as it was the Jayhawks fraying around the edges.

At the break, the Cats were up 25-14 on the boards and were outshooting the Jayhawks from the field, 53 percent to 33 percent, and already had two double-figure scorers -- Lamb with 12 points and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with 11.

A single stat to show how deep and versatile this Kentucky was this season: Davis -- honored as the national player of the year no fewer than five times in the last two weeks -- didn't score a point in the opening period.

But then Kansas caught life, just as it had against Cal's Memphis team in 2008. It pulled within nine with a little over four minutes to play. It had UK playing not to lose. Then it cut the margin to five.

Could this be 2008 all over again, Self besting Cal when it mattered most?

But then Davis stepped out to befuddle Johnson, the game ended and the partying began.

"We're where we wanted to be all season," Teague said. "We're No. 1."

If Calipari keeps recruiting talent like this, it shouldn't be the last time he leads Big Blue to the top.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.