Calipari and Co. chasing immortality

Philadelphia, PA ( - The Kentucky Wildcats are two victories away from recording a perfect season, putting them in rarified air with some of the greatest programs in college basketball history.


Names associated with college basketball's Nirvana include head coaches John Wooden (UCLA - 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973), Bob Knight (Indiana - 1976), Frank McGuire (North Carolina - 1957) and Phil Woopert (San Francisco - 1956).


Of course, it could have never happened without special players like San Francisco's Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, UCLA's Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul- Jabbar) and Bill Walton, and Indiana's Quinn Buckner, just to name a few.


This year's Kentucky squad may just rank right up there with the best of them as it could become the first team ever to run the table since the NCAA Tournament's expansion to 64 teams (now 68) in 1985.


For all his detractors, Calipari has to be given credit for Kentucky's ascension to the top of the basketball world. He has mastered the art of coaching during an era of "one and done." Getting the most out of a team that will not spend more than one year together requires a skill set that few coaches even want to be bothered with honing. However, that is exactly where Calipari has shined.


The Wildcats are playing in their fourth Final Four in the last five years, with one national championship to their credit (2012). Calipari joins UCLA's Wooden and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to lead teams to four Final Fours in a five-year span.


His body of work as a head coach at Massachusetts, Memphis and now Kentucky has Calipari on the cusp of entering the Basketball Hall of Fame, something this year's other Final Four coaches believe he is worthy of already.


"People aren't up for (the Hall of Fame) unless people believe that he belongs," Krzyzewski said. "I think whether it happens this year, it will happen."


Michigan State's Tom Izzo took time to speak on the issue as well.


"Well, if you look at it, when you can win at Massachusetts, then go and win at Memphis, then the job he's done at Kentucky is unbelievable," Izzo said. "He doesn't get enough credit for his coaching. Having great players, I mean, there's days that it's easier. I think what people don't realize is there's days when it's more difficult juggling egos, juggling the NBA stuff, juggling the expectations at a school like Kentucky. I do think he's very deserving of being in (the Hall of Fame)."

This year's Kentucky squad has already set numerous records, including an NCAA-record 38-0 start. In fact, only three teams in NCAA history have reached 38 wins in a season and Calipari has coached all three (Memphis in 2007 and Kentucky in 2012 and 2015).

Does Kentucky have all-time greats suiting up game-in and game-out? That remains to be seen. It doesn't appear that way on first glance, but what the team does as well as any in recent memory is take it the proverbial "one game at a time."


The Wildcats don't seem to get flustered by anything. A couple of SEC squads took Kentucky to the limit and beyond this season (Ole Miss and Texas A&M), but Calipari's crew held on and delivered in overtime victories. In the Elite Eight, against a Notre Dame squad that seemed to do just about everything right, Kentucky once again prevailed in the waning moments.


What makes this Kentucky team so special? It certainly isn't finesse or the flair for the dramatic, but rather a lunch-pail mentality that every player on the roster has bought into. Defense comes first in Lexington and that is where the Wildcats have distanced themselves from the rest of college basketball.


With low post specialists in All-American Willie Cauley-Stein and National Freshman of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky simply owns the paint. Few if any teams can effectively deliver down around the basket against the Wildcats thanks to their twin towers. Then there's the actual twins on the roster, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who ignite play in the backcourt. Sophomore Dakari Johnson and freshmen Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis provide unmatched depth and youthful exuberance to a team that already had plenty of both.


Being undefeated could give Kentucky a false sense of security heading into the last weekend of action, but finding motivation isn't a problem as far as Aaron Harrison sees it, especially coming off last season's disappointing loss in the national title game.


"When you get this close into the Final Four, everyone is motivated," Harrison said. "I think that we have a chip on our shoulder and have a lot to prove. I'm not sure how other teams feel, but I know we're as motivated as we've ever been and even more. We're just going out and trying to win games, make statements, and play as hard as we can."


Kentucky taking its game to another level seems absurd, but whether it is destiny or dynasty that best describes the Wildcats, one thing is for sure - they are here to finish the task at hand and complete an unbelievable journey.


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