By Joe Cox
As March has turned to April, and Kentucky’s flirtation with basketball perfection is closing in on its ultimate target, there are a couple of narratives that have emerged. We’re going to discard them, and look at the narrative that I think people are overlooking.
Big narrative No. 1 — UK, with its love of one-and-done, is awful for college athletics. These kids aren’t concerned with graduating, and it’s all a sham. And Coach Cal is a snake oil salesman.
This narrative is a complete crock of garbage, and I’d love to write a column deconstructing it, but lots of other people are doing there, and you can—and should—read their columns.
Big narrative No. 2 — Calipari is like the world’s greatest blackjack player. He’s honest with the All-Americans he’s recruiting about what is best for their future ….and he delivers. He makes the best amateurs into pros, and if UK profits by that, who is the worse for it?
There is an element of truth to this narrative, but I think it’s missing the key point… which is that no matter how many times Cal draws a “3” by hitting on 18, he isn’t really a blackjack player. He’s a coach.
And John Calipari has been a ferociously underappreciated coach, and big narrative No. 2 is subtly keeping it that way. He does more than recruit stars and juggle egos. And the “more” is what makes him special.
As a collection of McDonald’s All-Americans approach basketball glory, the guy who best exemplifies what Calipari brings to the table is the one guy who wasn’t an All-American. He was a mixed race child who was raised by his white grandparents in a two-horse town in Kansas. He was a football player whose athleticism intrigued Calipari, and who thus became a 7-foot experiment -- Can a huge, talented athlete learn to thrive in the fishbowl of UK basketball?
If he wasn’t like his teammates on the court, he wasn’t always like them off the court, either. He is a flashy dresser, but a sensitive deep thinker. He writes poetry, loves art, wears beatnik glasses at times, and may soon become the only NBA Draft lottery pick who carries coloring books.
It wasn’t always easy. Willie Cauley-Stein has spoken of the learning curve of his freshman year, and how he felt that he didn’t always fit in. On the court, the experiment was a work in progress. Some days, he thrived. Some days… well, there was the three fouls in six minutes of time against Duke. Two points in 21 minutes of playing time against Morehead State. There was a game at Tennessee when Cauley-Stein fouled out, had four turnovers, and scored only two points. He shot 37% at the free throw line for the season.
At the heart of the struggle was the fact that Cauley-Stein hasn’t always seemed like he especially liked to play basketball. At UK, this is completely outside the realm of understanding. From Pikeville to Paducah, every nook and cranny of the state is filled with schoolboys shooting on their backyard hoops until it is too dark or cold to continue. They dream basketball, eat it, speak it, live it. Enter the seven-foot prodigy who wasn’t entirely sure what he thought about it.
Cauley-Stein has benefitted by a large from the coaching of a man who is as basketball-obsessed as he was not. Lest Calipari be accused of being a mere magician who is pulling a seven-foot rabbit out of a hat, this is the coach who turned Darius Miller from a timid supporting player to a star in a national title run, who turned Josh Harrellson from a bumbling benchwarmer to a Final Four-bound star, and who has spent virtually his entire pre-Kentucky career transforming under-the-radar guys into winners. He’s a coach who told Cauley-Stein in the spring of 2014 that he could go pro—and that he should. But when WCS pushed back, Calipari listened. He made him explain why. And while we’re not privy to the details of the conversation, I have to imagine that it mentioned things like Cauley-Stein liking college, enjoying being at UK, and recognizing that he could grow further under Calipari’s teaching.
And maybe this is why, of all of Calipari’s individual coaching development jobs, the biggest transformation I can recall is seeing Cauley-Stein go from reluctant outsider to conquering hero. It’s a story that is likely to finish with a flourish on Saturday and hopefully Monday. But regardless, there’s already been so much ground covered.
Cauley-Stein is a first team All-American. He is virtually guaranteed to be an NBA Draft lottery pick, and his on-the-ball defense is frankly so good that it’s hard to quantify how good it really is. He handles guards off the dribble, he absorbs the post-up moves of big men. And he stops the other team from scoring points. Sure, he periodically adds a glorious slam dunk, a deft post move, or a nice mid-range jump shot. He’s even upped his free throw shooting to 62 percent. But he shines on the defensive end of the Court, giving backbone to a historically great defensive Kentucky team. And where stats fail, the eyeball test still tells the story of his greatness.
On the final play Saturday night against, Notre Dame, with his team ahead by two points, Calipari did not call time out. He trusted his team, as he often does in late-game situations, to know what to do. Notre Dame first-team All-American Jerian Grant took the ball and with the clock ticking down, raced into the front court to try a desperation shot at victory, at toppling the undefeated Wildcats. Grant is 6-foot-5, and as his all-American accolades might suggest, quick as a cat. But he was stalked, stride-for-stride, by the big man who would not be denied. Andrew Harrison fell behind, but Cauley-Stein shadowed Grant, outracing him at the end, and thus rather than fouling him, forcing him to heave a high arcing shot that missed the rim altogether.
The big gangly Kansas boy has become a Kentucky man over the past three years. His determination, his athleticism, his intensity suggested that maybe, just maybe, Cauley-Stein wants to play basketball more than he ever would have thought possible-- perhaps two more games this season.
After the game, Andrew Harrison was asked about the last possession defense on Notre Dame’s Grant. He told the assembled press, “[T]hat was all Willie.”
Well, yes, but maybe just a little bit of Calipari.
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