(L-R) Daniel Orton #33, Patrick Patterson #54 and Josh Harrellson #55 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate after their 75-74 overtime win against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the final of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena on March 14.
Then there are other times when Calipari sounds like his young team is turning him into a full-blown neurotic. Even this late in the season, with the NCAA tournament just ahead, it’s hard to know with Calipari where the shtick stops and the serious anxiety begins.
One minute Calipari is volunteering to the media that he took only two changes of clothes to the SEC tournament last weekend even though it would take his favored Wildcats three games to win the championship because, “I thought we’d probably get beat.” Kentucky didn’t, and in his next breath, when asked why his team didn’t cut down the nets after outlasting Mississippi State 75-74, in overtime, Calipari forgot the humility and began talking smack instead: “We will get to cut down some nets. It’s just not SEC tournament nets.
“I want these guys to think big.”
Calipari acknowledges it’s been a season-long tightrope walk for him and his version of the Fab Five. But that unpredictability is what makes Kentucky the most fascinating contender in this year’s wide-open tournament. Kentucky begins Thursday against East Tennessee State in New Orleans. Texas, Wisconsin, New Mexico or West Virginia could loom after that.
Top-ranked Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest Regional, may be a better team overall because of its edge in experience. But Kentucky, the top seed in the East, has the talent to play with anybody.
The Wildcats rely heavily on five freshmen — John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, David Orton and Jon Hood. The short list of what they can achieve in this year’s tournament is what sometimes passes for sentimentality in college basketball nowadays: Fans are being warned to appreciate this group of freshmen now because they could be one-and-done. Wall and Cousins could be the top two NBA picks. Junior forward Patrick Paterson, the only upperclassman who starts, is also expected to go.
Kentucky’s freshmen know they’ll ultimately be judged by this postseason run. And they would deserve to replace Michigan’s Fab Five as the best recruiting class of all time if they win the NCAA title, even if their stylistic impact on college basketball is nothing close to what those 1991-93 Michigan teams of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson wrought with their novel oversized shorts and black socks, shaved heads and big personalities.
The goal of the original Fab Five was to do things that had never been done before, and they did it with an rollicking mix of originality and exuberance, wit and entertainment skills that yanked the game back from the celebrity coaches that are usually the focus in college basketball. The original Fab Five were fun and loud and refreshing to watch, even if they lost both NCAA title games they played in their two seasons together, and it came out years later that a few of them had taken under-the-table perks that resulted in their achievements being wiped from the record books.
This Kentucky team isn’t groundbreaking in those ways. The similarities are that Kentucky is just very, very good and very, very young — two themes that Calipari has milked relentlessly in what’s been a tortured running monologue all season.
He’s slapped his head after some wins — even the SEC title game thriller — and yapped about how Kentucky deserved to lose. He’s been only too happy to elaborate on all the challenges this team’s inexperience creates for him versus, say, the veteran UMass and Memphis teams he’d previously taken on terrific NCAA runs.
“This team, they don’t shave yet,” Calipari said. “I don’t know what to expect at times. This is new to me, believe me. I’m walking along trying to figure out, what do I do? What buttons do I push? ... We’ve got good kids. They just — they react to things wrong.”
On the other hand ...
“I love my team,” Calipari added. “I still think I have a team that can do whatever they want. These players are so young they don’t know better. In a way, it’s not bad. They just think we’re going to come back. They haven’t been in enough games to know that’s very hard, what you just did. They’re like, ‘No, it isn’t. We just did it.’ ”
At times, Calipari’s thrashing can seem contrived. By harping on all the challenges he’s juggled, the unspoken message is he’s been just as good as these players. But give the guy his props: This season it happens to be true. What Calipari has done in his first season in Kentucky is pretty much what everyone expected once this freshman class followed him from Memphis. But that doesn’t mean this year’s results were a lock. Michigan’s Fab Five proved that.
Anything is possible for this Kentucky team, good or bad. The Wildcats’ transition offense is terrific; their outside shooting, not so much. After Kentucky wobbled a bit in its SEC tournament opener against Alabama and then that escape against Mississippi State, Calipari again let his neurotic side gallop along for awhile and talked about how Kentucky should’ve lost both times. But once he got it all out of his system, what he saw in Kentucky’s Fab Five freshmen is what everyone else is raving about too.
“If we play like we did today,” Calipari said, looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, “we’ll march.”