If you listen to some national media members, or even some in Kentucky, the answer is yes. But why?
Calipari has a 98-14 record in three years at Kentucky going into Friday’s NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal matchup with Indiana. His first team went to the Elite Eight and was upset by West Virginia. Calipari somehow revitalized the Kentucky program from the depths of the Billy Gillispie debacle immediately by bringing in a recruiting class headed by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. That team went 35-3.
In year two, Calipari again brought in big-time talent and despite having Enes Kanter ruled ineligible, he worked magic with Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins also with his freshmen and somehow got UK¿to the Final Four. The team that went 2-6 in Southeastern Conference road games upset both Ohio State and North Carolina before losing to Connecticut in the Final Four to finish 29-9 — and just missed extending Calipari’s mark of 30-win seasons to six in a row.
This season Calipari had the No. 1 recruiting class and likely national player of the year in freshman Anthony Davis. The Wildcats are 34-2 going into the Indiana game and favored to win UK’s eighth national title.
Think back to the situation he inherited. Kentucky was 40-27 in two seasons under Gillispie and missed the NCAA Tournament in 2009 when it finished only fourth in the SEC Eastern Division.
The previous two seasons under Tubby Smith, UK was third and fourth in the SEC East and won just one NCAA Tournament game each year. Smith’s last two teams were 44-25. That means in the previous four years, UK was 84-52. That’s 14 less wins than Calipari already has in three years.
Compare Calipari to Indiana coach Tom Crean. Like Calipari, Crean inherited a mess and a team without an abundance of talent. In four years, he’s gone to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen once — and has been hailed as nothing short of a miracle worker for what he’s done for the Hoosiers. His first team went 6-25, including 1-17 in Big Ten play. Year two it was 10-21 and 4-14. Last year it was 12-20 and 3-5. This season the Hoosiers are 27-8, 11-7. Overall, that’s 55-74 and he’s being praised coast to coast for getting the Hoosiers this far.
Give Crean credit for recognizing the job Calipari, a long-time friend, has done.
“I've got a lot of respect for him. Even if I didn't know him very well, I would put him up with anybody as far as a basketball coach. I remember when we were in Conference USA together and he had come to Memphis and I learned more watching him, watching his game tapes, even when we weren't in competition with him that helped me in the sense of spacing, misdirection, defensive things, trapping,” Crean said. “I went into that league at 33 and you had Denny Crum, Bob Huggins in that league, Bobby Lutz. Then it was Rick Pitino, John Calipari. It was a total clinic every time you watched game tape.
“John, I think the biggest thing, he just continues to evolve in so many ways. For as good as he is and as much talent as he has as a coach and with his team, he's constantly asking questions, looking to adjust, looking to add. A lot of guys at his level who are on his career path he's had wouldn't have to do that, he does. I think that's one of the reasons he's such a great coach and that's a big part of our friendship is being able to talk basketball and to compare notes. I learn as much from him, watching him coach and watching how he does things with his team as much as anybody out there."
He’s right. I’ve had two coaches tell me this year how impressed they were that Kentucky made dramatic changes to its zone offense. That’s been an overlooked part of UK’s play, and another reason this team could win it all.
Then there is the best trait about this team that an intense coach like Crean appreciates.
“John is such a good coach for a lot of different reasons but maybe this year, more than ever, that team really, really shares the basketball. When you look at the talent on that team, and when you look at the upside of that team and where some of those players are just scratching the surface of where they're going to be in basketball in their careers. And he's got them moving the basketball like that, that's really, really strong,” Crean said.
“I would imagine that's hard to do but he's done a phenomenal job of that and I think that's one of the reasons they've improved. It's also one of the reasons they've won so many games.”
It’s also why Calipari will keep winning games and even if UK doesn’t win the title, any Kentucky fan that becomes upset with what he’s doing certainly must have a short, short memory.