Calipari became believer in Kentucky's pursuit of perfection
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) At times last season John Calipari allowed himself to flirt with the thought of a perfect season. At other times, he had real doubts.
By the time Kentucky reached the Final Four without a loss, Calipari's players had turned their coach into a true blue believer.
On Friday night in Indianapolis, Calipari told a group of high school basketball coaches he thought Kentucky would finish undefeated and later said he never doubted his team would find a way to stop Wisconsin in the national semifinals - until it was too late.
''You know, it never entered my mind that we were going to lose,'' Calipari told The Associated Press as he walked out of the high school gym. ''When we were up four with 5 minutes to go, I thought it was over. Even when Wisconsin made that run, I thought we'd figure it out.
''We never, in my time at Kentucky, we just don't lose that game,'' he added.
It was the only time all season Kentucky's talented team came up short.
And if Calipari was looking for empathy, he certainly wasn't going to find it inside Lawrence North High School - where Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Eric Montross all played prep ball.
Three weeks after the Badgers' stunning 71-64 upset over what some believed was one of college basketball's greatest teams, and 2 1/2 weeks after Calipari was named a Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame inductee, he returned to the city where all of that happened and asked the crowd how many thought Kentucky would go 40-0 and become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976?
''I guess there's too many Indiana fans in here,'' he joked when not many hands went up. ''I thought we would run the table.''
Calipari did more than just entertain.
He described how he massaged a roster of nine McDonald's All-Americas, getting each to sacrifice minutes and stats as they tried to make history. He explained why he deviated from his longtime coaching philosophy of using a seven-player rotation in favor of going with essentially two five-man units. He put his creativity on full display by using seven NAIA players to demonstrate three new drills he added to his practice repertoire this season, and he poignantly advised the young coaches in attendance to remember they are working for the players, not personal records.
The Kentucky coach spent about 20 minutes taking photos and signing autographs for the crowd.
After that, Calipari opened up about his thoughts on one of the best seasons in Kentucky history.
''When we beat Kansas and UCLA, I thought we had a chance (at a perfect season),'' he said. ''When we had the overtime games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, I thought maybe not. But then we started playing really well.''
Eventually, the guys Calipari was trying to protect from getting engulfed in the circus-like environment of an unbeaten season convinced him they could do it.
''I asked them if they talked about 40-0, and they said they talked about it all the time,'' Calipari said. ''Here, I was trying to take 40-0 off the table for them, and all the time, they were talking about it.''
Since then, Calipari has been a busy man.
With seven players announcing they would leave school early for the NBA draft, one fewer than Calipari's season-long goal, he has been scrambling to fill roster spots and debating what he'll do next season without the same lineup.
''We won't have the post-up game we just had,'' Calipari said. ''We'll have big, slender guys and I think we still need one more scorer.''
But even though Calipari and Kentucky came up short this season, Calipari is still celebrating.
''You know a pizza guy came up to me and said, `I'm sorry about this season,''' Calipari told the crowd. ''I said, `You know, I feel the same way. But we were 38-1.'''