It took a whopping suspension of disbelief to buy coach John Calipari’s assertion that his Kentucky Wildcats would treat their NCAA championship contest with the Kansas Jayhawks as just another game. Surely he knew and his team knew what we’ve known all along. Kentucky’s fanatic supporters may be impressed by the parade of recruits who stop off in Lexington long enough to win National Basketball Association contracts, but national titles are what fans really want to win. If Calipari had failed to deliver – at age 53, he’d missed the ultimate triumph at Kentucky and elsewhere – nothing else would have mattered.
Fortunately, the talent-blessed Wildcats managed to pull it off Monday night in New Orleans. Kansas, the birthplace of basketball and of Adolph Rupp, the legendary baron of Kentucky’s Big Blue tradition, made it a battle to remember with another of the second-half comebacks that had gotten the Jayhawks to the final game. This time, Kentucky held on just long enough to claim a 67-59 victory.
Cynics inclined to belittle UK’s achievement will have plenty of ammunition. They’ll note the Wildcats won their eighth NCAA trophy not by relying on homegrown talent as myth says it should have (picture a bunch of good ol’ boys honing their skills on rims nailed above Kentucky barn doors) but by drawing blue-chip talent from virtually every corner of this nation without much minding that recruits planned only a brief stay in the Bluegrass before heading off to the pros. True enough, by and large. It’s been a long time since college basketball served to validate regional superiority. Kentucky has had stars nurtured in its own towns and countryside, Maysville senior Darius Miller being a prime example. But no state, however fanatic its basketball obsession, can attain the pinnacle with native sons alone. Successful college coaches need to draw athletes from near and far to compete in today’s hardwood wars.
Still, credit UK’s passionate fans for pumping up the sojourners with school spirit and the coach for molding raw talent into a machine that relentlessly rolled over all but two of its opponents this year, efficiently finishing off Kansas despite some rough going in the second half of Monday’s game.
The coach’s biggest accomplishment lay in persuading his players, many of whom could have been the preeminent stars of lesser teams, to subdue their egos and pursue the championship together. Such an assemblage of talent could easily have devolved into a chaotic band of insufferable prima-donnas, intent on showcasing their own abilities at the expense of team play. Their success as a unit now makes their individual stock even more attractive to professional recruiters, who also value dedication to teamwork.
Calipari, having added his own NCAA banner to those unfurled in the hallowed heights of Rupp Arena for Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, deserves to relax a bit before facing the next big question: Can he continue drawing the nation’s best players to Kentucky while also persuading them to put program first? Or was this year’s special season a “one-and-done” phenomenon, like the remarkable young men who almost certainly will be moving on?
We’ll have to wait and see. But at least we no longer have to wait for that eighth championship trophy. It’s here to stay.