SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - John Calipari keeps the "for sale" signs
angry Memphis fans once staked in his yard in his garage. He has
them as reminders that, even when times are good, there were plenty
of years when fans wanted him gone.
Calipari bristled when it was suggested he was the master of the
quick fix, a coach able to turn around programs with a few prized
recruits, some slick strategy, and then kick back and enjoy Final
He rattled off his resume: Calipari needed four years at UMass
to make the NCAA tournament; three at Memphis and then three more
to get out of the second round; and his NBA career lasted all of
two-plus seasons with the New Jersey Nets.
He's always needed time to win games and win over fickle fans.
Just not this year. Not at Kentucky.
Calipari has built Kentucky into a championship program again,
not a mere solid one that lagged in prestige and Final Four counts
in the final years of the Tubby Smith era and then under Billy
Gillispie. Calipari has the Wildcats (35-2) within one win of their
first Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998.
Win an eighth national title in Indianapolis and Kentucky will
be KENTUCKY again.
"We know that we're part of history," forward Patrick
Patterson said. "We're part of a team that's getting Kentucky back
to the true place that the Kentucky program was in the past and
should be from now on."
Patterson is a rare contributing holdover from Gillispie's rocky
tenure. Calipari hit the recruiting trail hard and landed DeMarcus
Cousins as his first high-profile recruit last April. John Wall
soon found his way to Lexington. In only one season, Calipari built
a roster of players who know nothing but big SEC wins and NCAA
The Wildcats are on the brink of reclaiming their position as
the king of college basketball. West Virginia (30-6) wants to stop
In what has been a topsy-turvy NCAA tournament, the East
Regional has proved the exception.
Top-seeded Kentucky and No. 2 West Virginia have escaped the
wild upsets that have knocked out two other No. 1 seeds and a few
other Final Four favorites. They play Saturday, with the winner
heading to Indianapolis.
Mountaineers star Da'Sean Butler had his right hand and wrist
wrapped in ice after Friday's practice as a precaution. He clutched
the hand in pain after a hard fall in West Virginia's 69-56 win
over Washington on Thursday night.
Butler, the team's leading scorer, said he shot well in practice
and the injury won't affect his play.
"I'm taking care of certain things before it gets to a certain
level where I can't do anything with it," he said.
The Big East tournament champions are already without starting
point guard Darryl Bryant after he broke his right foot in practice
Tuesday. But just like the Wildcats, Butler and the Mountaineers
are rolling. They've won nine straight games and held six
consecutive teams below 60 points.
They looked a bit out of rhythm running their half-court offense
without Bryant, however, and played one of the ugliest first halves
of the tournament Thursday night.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins returned to his alma mater with
a Final Four in mind. He wants that second trip - he led Cincinnati
to the Final Four in 1992 - even if it comes at the expense of his
good friend, Calipari. They long ago forged a tight friendship
that's spanned every coaching stop. When Huggins had his heart
attack, Calipari was one of the first to visit him in the hospital.
Calipari's nephew was in the ambulance that transported Huggins.
"He said, 'Coach Huggins, you're going to be all right. I'm
John Calipari's nephew,"' Calipari recalled. "And (Huggins) went,
'Oh my goodness, I'm not going to make it."'
Huggins cracked that Calipari's nephew told him, "Coach, don't
worry. I'm not going to let you die until Cal beats you at least
Calipari has beaten Huggins before, and a win Saturday night
would be the sweetest victory yet. Calipari is still trying to get
to a Final Four that counts - trips with Memphis and Massachusetts
have been vacated by the NCAA.
Calipari has downplayed expectations and loves to point out that
Kentucky is one of the most inexperienced teams left in the field.
The Wildcats start three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, but
any tournament jitters have long vanished.
"We believe that we are a great basketball team," Patterson
said. "We truly believe that we can win this national title if we
continue playing better and keep improving."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)