After it was over, when the confetti had carpeted the court in the Superdome in New Orleans in the wake of Kentucky's 67--59 win over Kansas in the NCAA title game on Monday night, the young Wildcats had answered the two biggest questions hanging over their scrutinized season: Yes, a team that started three freshmen and two sophomores could resist cracking under the pressure of their sport's grandest stage and meet the outsized expectations of their fan base. And yes, their 53-year-old coach, John Calipari, could win "the big one." Just one remained: Would Calipari cut a piece of the net as a souvenir of his long-awaited title? He hadn't climbed the ladder after the Wildcats won the South Regional in Atlanta the week before. "That was their time," Calipari said earlier in the week. "They don't need me waving a string around. This should be about the players."
On Monday, it was about the players again, and they were magnificent. There was sophomore guard Doron Lamb, one of two key holdovers from last year's vaunted freshman class and the team's best shooter, hitting two straight three-pointers to kill a Jayhawks rally midway through the second half and finishing with a game-high 22 points. There was 6'10" freshman Anthony Davis, the elastic-limbed 19-year-old national player of the year, who displayed athletic gifts so otherworldly that he seemed to lack only a cape as he soared above the rim. Even though he scored just one field goal, he dominated in every other way, grabbing 16 rebounds and making three steals, including a spectacular snatch of an alley-oop pass intended for 7-foot Jeff Withey early in the first half. Davis also blocked six shots, tying the NCAA championship mark and bringing his season total to 186, a freshman record.
There was Davis's roommate, fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, still six months shy of his 19th birthday, a player whose struggles with a stutter off the court belie his fluency on it. In addition to scoring 11 points, Kidd-Gilchrist made the biggest defensive play of the game: With Kansas down 63--57, Jayhawks guard Tyshawn Taylor went backdoor on the 6'7" Kidd-Gilchrist and tried a reverse. But the player Davis calls "our best finisher" scrambled and blocked his shot.
There was 6'9" sophomore Terrence Jones, who skipped the NBA draft last year after Kentucky was ousted by Connecticut in the Final Four because, he says, "I wanted to play in the final game of the season," adding nine points, seven rebounds and a defensive presence that made Kansas star Thomas Robinson struggle for each of his 18 points and 17 rebounds. "Every time Thomas caught the ball," said Withey, "he had three guys on him."
There was freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who helped ensure that Calipari didn't relive the nightmare ending of his last appearance in the title game. In 2008, also against the Jayhawks, Calipari's Memphis team lost 75--68 in overtime after squandering a nine-point lead with 2:12 left in regulation by missing 4 of 5 free throws down the stretch. When Kansas whittled a 16-point deficit to seven with 3:52 to go on Monday, Teague hit a critical trey a minute later and then added two free throws to stretch the lead to eight.
After Kansas guard Elijah Johnson's final three missed, Davis cradled the rebound and ran through exploding confetti to find his teammates. Later, he wrapped Kidd-Gilchrist in a sweaty bear hug and said, "I love you. This is what we came to Kentucky for."
In seizing the Wildcats' eighth NCAA title, and his first in 20 years as a college head coach, Calipari put to rest questions of whether his methodology of welcoming elite freshmen to campus in the summer and waving goodbye as they headed to the NBA draft in the spring could produce a champion. The question of whether his system is subverting the aims of higher education—a hot topic throughout the tournament—will no doubt remain open to debate.
Calipari says even he doesn't like the NBA bylaw that has come to define him and his programs, the so-called one-and-done rule that since '06 has mandated that a potential draftee be at least 19 and a year removed from high school. But it has been undeniably good for the brand that he has built in Lexington, which has become the locale for elite players filling their gap years. Calipari has been a head coach in the pros (two-plus seasons with the New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s), and he is as connected as anyone in the business. NBA stars work out on campus during their off-seasons. Celebrities like LeBron James and Jay-Z cheer from the sidelines. Most important, Calipari is unapologetic about putting his players before the program. Two years ago, when an unprecedented five Wildcats, four of them freshmen, went in the first round of the draft, Calipari declared it "the biggest day" in Kentucky hoops history. He drew heat from the fans and the media for his comment, but his stance hasn't changed. If Calipari thinks a player should turn pro, he'll push him out the door. "What's the option?" he asks. "Deceive a kid that he should stay when he should leave? I won't do that."
Calipari's perceived role as dean of an NBA finishing school is just one reason some root against him. There's also his track record: He and Rick Pitino are the only coaches to take three programs to the Final Four (Calipari took UMass in 1996, Memphis in 2008 and Kentucky in '11 and '12), but Calipari's first two appearances have been vacated. Four of the Minutemen's wins were erased from the record books because forward Marcus Camby received improper benefits from agents, and all 38 of Memphis's victories were negated after guard Derrick Rose was declared ineligible because of an invalid SAT score. Although Calipari was not personally implicated in either scandal, suspicion continues to surround his program. Former Indiana coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight is so disdainful of the team and its coach that he wouldn't even say Kentucky on air for most of the season, referring to the Wildcats as "that team from the SEC."
Indiana coach Tom Crean, a Calipari friend and confidant, says these "lightning rod issues" obscure an important point about Calipari. "This guy is one of the best coaches in college basketball," he says. "He gets talent to play very hard, and he makes talent better."