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Kentucky’s Calipari: Often wronged, seldom wrong (according to him)

The most impressive Kentucky victory in many a moon hadn’t been in the books for 20 minutes before John Calipari was crowing. A media member began a question to guard De’Aaron Fox: “It looks as if the SEC is going to have three of the Elite Eight …”

Calipari interrupted. “What’s the Florida score?”

Up by seven, 1:44 remaining.

“No,” Calipari said in mock horror. (Cal’s big on mock horror.) “There are not three SEC teams in the Elite Eight. We’re supposed to be a bad league. That’s got to be all these other leagues, right?”

This nearly was premature jubilation. That seven-point lead was lost; the Gators needed to override a five-point deficit in the final minute of overtime to outlast Wisconsin. Bottom line, though: Sunday’s regional finals will feature three teams from the conference that, this time a year ago, admitted that its basketball apparatus needed recalibration — plus North Carolina from the abruptly chastened ACC.

About Calipari: Love him or hate him — and in this city, which he left to coach Kentucky and where a dinner to honor him last year was canceled because of civic outcry, he’s both loved and hated — we cannot ignore him. He mightn’t be the best coach in college basketball, but he’s the face of college basketball. His isn’t the only program to profit from one-and-done players — Duke does; Kansas does; UCLA just did — but his Kentucky got there fastest with the mostest.

He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s also the only Hall of Fame coach who has had Final Four runs at two schools vacated by NCAA sanctions. That’s one reason some Memphians can’t abide him. They feel he bolted the program for a better job while leaving the Tigers — to assistant Josh Pastner, now of Georgia Tech — in the lurch.

Calipari tries to explain that away — “Kentucky is a job you leave for,” he said this week — but he’s always explaining something. He wasn’t cited in the violations that deleted UMass’ 1996 Final Four or Memphis’ appearance in the 2008 NCAA championship game, and what really irks people is that Cal, far from being abashed, presents himself as a fount of righteous indignation. That’s Cal — often wronged but seldom wrong.

We stipulate that Calipari clearly cares about his players, which is a major reason why so many McDonald’s All-Americans land in Lexington. Some Kentucky fans believe he cares more about his guys getting drafted than he does winning games. (You’ll be shocked to know Cal disputes that.) And he obviously coaches these guys: As star-spangled as the Wildcats invariably are, they don’t play like an all-star team. They share the ball. They defend.

But there is about Calipari a need to Set The Record Straight. His method is to wait until someone expresses doubt about something involving him or his team or its conference and then go the tut-tut route. (As if meek Kentucky is never expected to win in roundball. As if all those one-and-dones were walk-ons.)

Were bluster all there is to Calipari, we could dismiss him as a blowhard who, as the English soccer chant goes, sings only when he’s winning. But the man — credit where it’s due — does keep surprising us.

Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA champs were the best team of this century, a massive collection of talent that meshed in a way such aggregations rarely do. His 2011 and 2014 Final Four teams peaked in March, which is the time to peak. The Wildcats who beat UCLA, which seemed every bit as gifted, here Friday were well-prepared and ferocious throughout. If Calipari isn’t an endgame tactician on the order of Mike Krzyzewski, neither is he an empty chair.

He’s also not one to let a moment speak for itself. He’s forever reminding us how difficult it is to coach Kentucky. (The job for which you leave Memphis, remember.) “Every game we play is a Super Bowl, not just this one,” he said Friday. “Every game in our league is a sold-out war — different shirt, coat, hat day, whatever you want to say.”

It’s true that SEC basketball is more vibrant when Kentucky comes to town, though it’s no truer than when Joe B. Hall was coaching the Big Blue. Back to Cal: “Our league had 11 teams in the top 100, and I believe seven in the top 50. But again, ‘That’s the SEC; they play football.’ We’ve got terrific coaches, we’ve got terrific programs, and out of 32 leagues, we were the youngest league in the country. It’s only going to get better.”

Then: “I have a feeling my young guys won’t be around next year, but I’ve got another crew coming in. And I’ve got to shout-out to Devin Booker. Ms. Veronica, his mother, hit me today, wishing me luck, and I said I’m so proud of your son, and he goes for 70 (for the Phoenix Suns) tonight. How do you get 70? Like he showed up our team. We just have a great win, and they’re going to be talking about Devin Booker all night.”

A coach into self-deprecation — Cal’s stabs fall flat because we know he means none of it — might have said, “Yeah, and what genius left Devin Booker on the bench in the Final Four while the Harrison twins frittered away the shot clock two years ago? Me.” But he didn’t say that. (He did admit the error months after the fact.)

He’s Coach Cal, and and he’s great and his league is great and, oh, did you know his Kentucky teams are 5-2 against North Carolina and he’s 94-10 in FedEx Forum? (Cue mock horror.) Did you know that? Can that even be?

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