By Joe Cox
After a perfect 31-0 regular season, John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats invade Nashville for the SEC Tournament—which hasn’t exactly been kind to the Wildcat boss. After winning his first two SEC Tournaments at Kentucky, Calipari has fallen short of the title for the last three seasons. Much of that difficulty falls at the feet of the head coach. His apparent disinterest in dispatching Vandy in the 2012 Tournament Final emphasizes how Calipari himself has basically dismissed the SEC Tournament as pointless.
That won’t be a problem this time around. He has played it low key, but Calipari wants the 40-0 perfect season as much or more than anybody else within the Kentucky program. It would be a crowning achievement not only for the team and the program, but for the oft-criticized head coach himself. First, there’s a matter of a second title. While Calipari doubtlessly felt legitimized by Kentucky’s 2012 triumph, he has a chance to join a list of relative immortals with a second title. The list of active coaches with two NCAA titles? Coach K, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams and Billy Donovan. For that matter, the all-time list is the same men, as well as John Wooden, Dean Smith, Denny Crum, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight, Jim Calhoun, Henry Iba, Ed Jucker, Phil Woolpert and Branch McCracken. Calipari would be the 15th all-time member of this club. With the exception of Donovan (who will one day join the others), every member of that list is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Calipari does his best to act immune, but make no mistake—the constant negative carping and criticism that he receives from haters in the national media does bother him. The chance to achieve a perfect season in an era when it has seemed impossible is one that he relishes. He may have called his book Players First, but you can hardly blame the Kentucky head man if he wants his fair share of credit and praise.
For that matter, many have criticized even this perfect season. The (twisted) logic is that Kentucky somehow needs to lose a game to learn some pivotal lesson. I can only speculate that the lesson is that it is possible for Kentucky to lose a game. Kentucky is chasing something besides seemingly inevitable success. Calipari is a coach whose philosophy centers around dreaming big—recruit the best players, make your school the top program in the game, expect to win, and win, and win some more—and this is the biggest point yet. If Kentucky comes up short in Nashville, it won’t be any lack of interest from the head coach. To the contrary, a run of three straight solid whippings would be deeply unsurprising—albeit very satisfying for Calipari.
ESPN has apparently spent a large amount of time and money making a film, wondering whether Kentucky fans still hate Duke legend Christian Laettner. I could have saved them some time. The sky is blue. The earth is round. UK fans hate Laettner.
In light of the attention that Laettner will again draw as UK’s public enemy No. 1, here’s a list of a few other “villains” who got under the skin of ‘Cat fans over the years:
* Bobby Knight—The man who loved to hate UK (and is thankfully now absent from their broadcasts) was 15-18 as a coach against Kentucky. After he cuffed Joe B. Hall in the head in 1974-75, UK ruined his perfect season with a regional final upset.
* Coach K—He’s 5-1 all-time against UK, and keeps the wheels of holier-than-thou Duke greased and rolling.
* Dean Smith—He was a great coach, as his 13-3 record against the Cats attests. He won the last six he coached against Kentucky, and in fact, only lost to UK once in the post-Adolph Rupp era.
* Billy Donovan—Despite his 17-28 mark against UK, his two-year NCAA title run with the Gators was insufferable. Also, he somehow turned down the UK job twice.
A few players as well....
* You can’t call him a villain, but no list of UK foes would be complete without Pistol Pete Maravich. He was 0-6 against UK, but as 52 points per game against UK demonstrates, that was hardly his fault.
* Ernie Grunfeld—Tennessee’s glory days of the Ernie and Bernie (King) Show were hard to stomach for the Cat fans. UT was 6-2 vs. Kentucky during Grunfeld’s career, and his 24.3 points per game had something to do with that.
* Scotty Thurman—Arkansas’s semi-official big shot maker burned UK on numerous occasions in the 1990s. Kentucky split six games with Arkansas during his career, but Thurman drilled 15 treys (and numerous other big shots) during those games.
* Joakim Noah—He flopped, he rebounded, he did a weird goofy dance. But he was 5-1 against UK and won two NCAA titles while UK floundered in the end of the Tubby Smith era.
* Jerry Lucas--A legend, but a legend who dated from the era after Adolph Rupp won his last title (in 1958). Lucas faced off with UK three times in his college career. He scored 34, 33, and 33 points in those games. His Ohio State Buckeyes won two of the three.
And one school....
* Connecticut—Not only do the Huskies own a 4-1 record against UK, but three of those wins are NCAA Tournament wins, with the last two coming in the Final Four and the National Championship game. The players change, the coach changes, but the Huskies are becoming a pain in the collective Big Blue behind.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports -- 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.