ARLINGTON, Texas -- John Calipari watched the magnitude of the national title game overwhelm his young Kentucky team. He watched a player he used to coach, Kevin Ollie, outfox him on the sideline with a less talented team. He watched, for the second time in his career, a superior team squander a chance at a national title one bricked free throw at a time.
Afterward, Calipari got up in front of the assembled media and delivered a press conference filled with bluster, contradiction and utter ridiculousness that managed to surpass even his own hyperbolic standards. Suddenly, one of the greatest recruiting class ever assembled was a bunch of knock-kneed 18-year-olds. A team stocked with McDonald's All-Americans looked like a junior high team making its debut.
"I needed to do a better job for these kids today," Calipari said without flinching, "because they needed more help."
Calipari blamed himself several times, which was admirable considering how much he blamed his players last year after a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris. It's always an extreme with the 55-year-old Calipari, and his polarizing personality on full display at the Final Four reminded everyone why he'll never make it as an NBA coach. Calipari and college basketball are stuck dancing in awkward hands-on-shoulders circles for the rest of his career.
Former Kentucky player Rex Chapman tweeted before the national title game that Calipari was headed to the Lakers, calling the move a "done deal." (Calipari shot down the rumor after the game.) This classic fake Twitter "story" was about as believable as Calipari's claim that he didn't get flashbacks on Monday night to the 2008 national title game against Kansas that his Memphis team threw away at the line.
But even in a star-driven city like L.A., it's hard to imagine there's a place for Calipari's shtick. The NBA is a players league, and its best coaches avoid personal attention as if it were a 98-mph fastball under the chin.
That's simply not John Calipari. It will never be John Calipari, who in his only NBA head coaching stint with the Nets reportedly had an intern call WFAN to defend him. Kobe Bryant would get motion sickness from rolling his eyes at Calipari before training camp ended. Calipari's best chance to go to the NBA was with the Knicks thanks to his cozy relationship with CAA, but that disappeared when the team hired Phil Jackson as president last month.
Calipari's me-first persona won't fly in the modern NBA, where the new wave of numbers-crunching general managers are looking for low-maintenance coaches like Boston's Brad Stevens, Memphis' Dave Joerger and Philadelphia's Brett Brown. If you are a college basketball fan, you've likely never heard of the latter two, and that's because they're grinder-types who don't draw much attention. The coaches aren't the show in the NBA.
NBA general managers don't want egos. They want people who are easy to work with. And Calipari, all the way back to his "Refuse to Lose" days at Massachusetts, has been about flash as much as substance. Who else would give Drake a 2012 national championship ring and invite him in the locker room last weekend? Who else would attempt to repair the bad reputation he's received for "one-and-done" players by attempting to rebrand the term "Succeed and Proceed"? (Sorry, Cal, that one has a New Coke feel to it. )
Calipari's Xs and Os certainly didn't distinguish him on Monday night. When we look back on this box score in 10 years, we're going to say, "How did Kentucky lose this game with all of those NBA players?"
Calipari could sense something was wrong early as Kentucky started the game dazed and confused. Calipari pulled star forward Julius Randle less than three minutes into the game because he said Randle was tired. (CBS reported that Randle had cramps, but Randle denied anything was wrong physically). So why did Calipari take his star forward out so early?
"Because he's a freshman, and he was anxious," Calipari said. "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It's normal."
Randle still managed to play 34 minutes and one could only wonder why Randle took just seven shots. (He also managed seven free throws.) Kentucky's most distinct advantage was its size, and it's hard to believe that Kentucky didn't exploit a UConn front line of Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah.
Calipari can't control his players missing free throws, as they finished 13-of-24. But he could have lengthened the game with 54 seconds remaining and Connecticut leading by four. Instead, UConn bled 29 seconds off the clock and Kentucky still fouled. That's because Shabazz Napier delivered a dagger lob pass to Lasan Kromah over a double-team. Kromah hit two free throws with 25 seconds remaining to push the UConn lead to six. Calipari brought up the ill-fated decision himself before anyone asked him about it.
"You could say, 'Why not foul?' he said. "Because they didn't miss any free throws. They weren't going to miss a free throw."
UConn finished 10-for-10 from the line, but Calipari didn't stop the clock and force the Huskies to make pressure free throws. That was something, as Calipari may recall, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose struggled with in 2008. "Those were the dice that I rolled," Calipari said.
To his credit, Calipari's switch to a zone in the first half prevented his team from getting blown out. He also lavishly credited Ollie. In the 1999-2000 season, Calipari coached Ollie as a 76ers assistant, and he watched his former player win the game by going to a small lineup. "They played looser, they played wider," Calipari said. "Kevin did a great job."
He's right. This win for Ollie will age well, as Calipari's more talented freshmen grow into NBA stars and Ollie's players meander through their professional basketball careers.
And that leads us to a final fitting twist. On a night when a rumor about John Calipari coaching the Lakers buzzed through AT&T Stadium, he got outcoached by a much more viable candidate for the job.