“THAT WAS A THROW!” Kentucky coach John Calipari screamed at sophomore forward Terrence Jones during the first half of Kentucky’s 69-61 national semifinal win over intrastate arch-rival Louisville. Jones had just chucked a weak shot at the basket, and gave it no chance to go in. On the sidelines, Calipari cartoonishly mimicked Jones’ ugly form, trying to shame him into playing stronger. After Calipari benched Jones moments later, he offered simple instructions to the future NBA player: “DUNK IT!”
Calipari’s sideline’s antics are almost as entertaining as Kentucky’s play, which is saying something: with a win over Kansas, which beat Ohio State 64-62 in the other national semifinal, on Monday night, the Wildcats can lay claim to being one of the best teams in college basketball history. Calipari stomps his feet, pops his veins: he’s always close to becoming unhinged. “WE RAN A PLAY FOR YOU TO THROW IT TO HIM!” Calipari screamed at sophomore Doron Lamb in the second half, after he failed to deliver the ball to its proper target. Everyone in earshot, including Kentucky überfan Ashley Judd, Nike founder Phil Knight, and Jay-Z, who were all sitting behind the Kentucky bench, could hear him.
After senior Darius Miller starting running down the floor after firing a shot, throwing off his balance, Calipari imitated Miller’s footwork. He almost fell off the elevated Superdome court. “WHY IS HE TAKING 70 STEPS AFTER RELEASING IT?” Calipari barked at his assistants.
The coach told Miller, “in a firm way,” to stay still — and his senior sharpshooter listened. Miller nailed a key three-pointer with five minutes left to stretch the Wildcat lead to 58-51. The team has responded to Calipari’s rantings. “He makes us play a lot better,” says Jones, who did wind up with a second-half dunk. He also makes them laugh. Eloy Vargas, a senior reserve, says that the Wildcats sit sternly when Calipari is going off, then often giggle once he turns around. “We don’t want him to see us,” Vargas says.
Calipari deserves credit to creating a dynamic that works; often, players sulk after being screamed at, and the beratings hurt their performance. But having the best player in the country also helps Calipari’s chances. Freshman Anthony Davis, Kentucky’s spindly 6’10 center whose wingspan can stretch across the Superdome, was a smooth 7 for 8 from the field against Louisville. He showed an array of post-moves, and shot the ball with both his right and left hands. NBA scouts are salivating. Davis finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. “When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 World Championships,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino says. “When you see this young man, you realize why they’re so good.”
To wit: with a little over a minute left, and Kentucky leading by jut five, 63-58, the Wildcats had a fast break. Davis was below the basket, along with Louisville’s 6’11” center Gorgui Dieng. According to basketball convention, Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should have slowed down, to eat some clock. Instead, he attempted an alley-oop pass over Dieng. Did we mention Dieng is 6’11″?
Kidd-Gilchrist says he didn’t think twice about taking such a risk. “I just threw it as high as I can,” he says. He knew that if got it above Dieng’s hand, Davis would jump to the ceiling to flush it home. And that’s exactly what Davis did. The dunk effectively ended the game.
“I kept telling them to keep attacking,” Calipari says. “I want them to be aggressive. We’re an attacking team. That’s what we are. I don’t want them to change.” When Kentucky started settling for jump shots in the first half, Calipari yelled “DRIVE THE BALL!” at his bench.
Kentucky’s win over Louisville settles the Bluegrass State score. And after the game, Pitino, the former Kentucky coach who has clashed with Calipari, told his rival that he’d be cheering for his team on Monday night. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams,” Pitino says. “I’m not going to lie to you. But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play. I’ll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky … Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky, which doesn’t happen very often.”
Pitino’s message to Kansas: “[you’re] going to have to play a helluva game to beat them.”