ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky — gorged with McDonald’s All-Americas, only two years removed from the latest of eight national titles — is the lowest seed to advance to this Final Four but isn’t exactly making like the underdog.
If anything, the No. 8-seeded Wildcats, outside of the massive and ardent Big Blue Nation, are a sort of antihero in Arlington. The big, bad Cats, with their all-freshman starting lineup of soon-to-be NBA players and says-what-he’s-thinking coach John Calipari could make them villains to some of the 80,000 expected to attend the national semifinals Saturday at AT&T Stadium and beyond.
To this, Calipari shrugs.
“It’s Kentucky,” he said here Thursday. “It’s Kentucky. It’s what you buy into. If you want to coach at Kentucky or play at Kentucky … it’s part of it.”
Steve Kerr, who will serve as analyst on TBS’ Final Four broadcast Saturday, likened UK, which has won a nation’s-best 2,139 games, to the Yankees or Notre Dame football.
“They’re the team that’s always going to be in the news,” Kerr said. “And they’re great for college basketball. … They’re a story, and people want to watch them whether they cheer for or against them.”
For those who enjoyed watching the Wildcats flail this season, as the talented freshmen learned how to play together, UK’s recent run must be stomach-turning. Because the Cats are playing their best, emerging from a gantlet of hard-fought games against No. 9 Kansas State, No. 1 Wichita State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan.
“Kentucky is obviously unbelievably talented,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators could meet UK in Monday’s title game, earlier this week. “They continue to get better and improve.”
But the rough times were particularly brutal.
During the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis last week, Calipari asked a group of his players to raise their hands if the season had been hard. Point guard Andrew Harrsion flung both arms toward the ceiling
With the talent overload, the Cats weren’t given a bit of leeway as they lost 10 games. And they heard the criticism.
“You’ve got to grow up kind of fast and not have it faze you,” Calipari said. “Now, does it make me mad? Yes, it does. Oh yeah. Because some of it is personal. Some of it is agenda-driven, where guys want to hurt the program and they’re taking it out on these kids. And it’s not right.
“But they withstood it all. It made them better.”
Calipari likes to say every opponent treats playing Kentucky like it’s the Super Bowl. Part of his recruiting sales pitch is telling prospects that playing at Kentucky is not for everyone because of the pressure.
“That’s a heck of a sale, isn’t it?” Calipari said.
Part of the vitriol stems from Calipari using the rule that prevents high school players from jumping directly to the NBA to the fullest extent. He and the Cats won the 2012 title with a team stocked with freshman short-timers, led by Anthony Davis.
“College fans in general are not fans of the one-and-done,” Kerr said. “Cal has not only employed the one-and-done but embraced it. …He knows he can get the talent that is capable of leaving for the NBA in a year.”
Calipari has gone on record that he’s not enamored of the rule. But, hey, the system is the system.
“It’s not as if Cal’s the only guy recruiting these kids,” TBS analyst Greg Anthony said. “Everybody else would have signed them.”
Then there is Calipari himself. The polarizing personality makes more than $5 million annually, behind only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Rick Pitino, according to USA Today. Teams he coached at Memphis and Massachusetts later vacated Final Four appearances.
He’s aware that he isn’t for everybody.
“Anybody that meets him is going to say, ‘I really like him,’” Calipari said of assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who has been hired as head coach at South Florida. “He did not get that from me.”
But Calipari did get the Wildcats to their 16th Final Four. They could match No. 8-seeded Villanova in 1985 as the lowest seed to win the national title — love it or hate it.
“When you’ve got the best players and you’ve got the most talent,” Kerr said, “they’re easy to root against.”