With a 67-59 victory over Kansas at the Superdome, the University of Kentucky became one of the youngest teams to win a national title on Monday. The Wildcats (38-2) earned their eighth national championship in school history –and their first since 1998– and delivered head coach John Calipari his first national title.
Monday night was a seminal moment for a one-of-a-kind, controversial coach who saw two of his three previous Final Four appearances, UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, vacated. His recruiting philosophy remains under attack by critics, but Coach Calipari does not apologize for encouraging his best recruits to use Kentucky, which had been dubbed One-and-Done U., as a one-year conduit to the NBA.
Kentucky, under Calipari, is the dominant recruiting program in college basketball. They own the nation’s past three No. 1 recruiting classes and have an inside track on an unprecedented fourth in as many years. They are in the midst of a recruiting dynasty and Monday night’s championship game was the coronation of the champion on- and-off-the-court. Defeating Kansas allowed Coach Cal to hoist his first national championship trophy and exorcise any basketball demons that haunted him in the past; including defeating Jayhawks’ head coach Bill Self, who orchestrated Kansas’s stunning overtime victory over Memphis in the ‘08 national title game. There isn’t a coach in the nation who can continue to use the “they can’t win the big game with one-and-dones” anymore.
Heralded as perhaps the best recruiter of the modern era, Coach Calipari’s greatest challenge during his first national championship season was how to get some of the most talented players he has ever coach –almost all underclassmen– to sacrifice individual achievement for team success. All season, Coach Cal challenged his young players to make an impact in a game when they weren’t scoring. No player accepted that challenge more than super-freshman Anthony Davis, the consensus and Naismith Player of the Year.
In the most significant game of Calipari’s career, no one exemplified Calipari’s point better than Davis, who dominated the national title game in every way except scoring. Davis first field goal of the title game came with 5:14 remaining, and Kentucky seemed on its way to punctuating one of the most dominant seasons by a team this decade. Davis, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament, finished with six points (1-of-10 from the field), 16 rebounds, five assists and six blocks, which tied Joakim Noah’s championship game record in block shots, learned how to impact the game through defense, not only offense.
Davis, along with fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, and senior Darius Miller, probably played their last collegiate game on Monday night. Although their stay in Lexington has been brief –except for Miller– the young Wildcats were taught how to play the game of basketball the correct way. Through leadership, perseverance, determination and hard work, Coach Cal has prepared his players for the next step of their basketball careers. With margins of victory of 15 and 16 points in the first two rounds, 12 and 12 to reach the Final Four, 8 and 8 against Louisville and Kansas, Calipari had his team play the right way, while dominating the competition throughout the season and the tournament. Despite the mindset of many today’s players to forgo their college careers for the professional ranks, Coach Cal knows how to prepare his players mentally and physically for the next level. Case in point, the success of reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who was the leader of the ’08 Memphis Tigers, Sacramento Kings’ Tyreke Evans and Washington Wizards’ John Wall, who have some success in their professional careers.
Davis and MKG, who are projected to be the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in the NBA draft, respectively, will follow in the same blueprint designed for them. Coach Cal, who hits the recruiting trail on Friday, will re-up with a new class next season, which will most likely include McDonald’s All-American MVP Shabazz Muhammed or Nerlens Noel to start his title defense. The feeling is Calipari has found a home for a long time to come to continue to turn young kids into superstars, all the while being role models for the younger generation. His recruiting methods may be controversial, but his philosophy, with this championship, is finally proven. (Photo)