After losing five players to NBA, Calipari has UK back in hunt

NEWARK, N.J. — OK, so up here in Joisey, the place where Sopranos and The Situation call home, they still don't think much of that Massachusetts transfer who, more than a decade ago, coached the professional basketball franchise for 21/2; years, or said he did.

With their long Garden State memories, they blame John Calipari for failing to pull the New Jersey Nets out of the NBA swamps, for failing to know anything about basketball.

Oh yeah, well right back at ya, buddy.

When Kentucky plays North Carolina today in the East Regional finals in the Prudential Center, it will be Calipari's seventh visit to the Elite Eight, his fifth in the past six years.

You got that, Joisey: Calipari's fifth Elite Eight in the past six years.

And stop it with those disclaimers about the NCAA's "vacated" stickers. Calipari was there on site, the architect of action — "John goes a little wacko on the sidelines because he's John," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams on Saturday — when Marcus Camby and UMass administered a beatdown to Georgetown in a 1996 regional final, when Derrick Rose and Memphis toppled Texas in a 2008 Elite Eight showcase.

But in no season, at no school, in no shape nor form has John Vincent Calipari done the coaching job he's done this season.

Let's be real, the man lost five first-round NBA draft picks last year. Lesser programs would be destroyed by such a day if they had ever dreamed of experiencing such a day. Even Cal himself was moved to label it the "greatest day in Kentucky basketball history," an over-the-top treatment of the moment which is now forgiven given the encore.

Just ask Ohio State. Ooops, sorry, the Buckeyes just left, carrying their No. 1 overall seed with them.

Calipari lost John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton to paycheck paradise, not to mention some significant subs in Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson, from a 35-3 Elite Eight team a year ago. Yet, here he is right back at the same NCAA spot, same NCAA channel, as if nothing really changed.

Does he get any credit for that? Of course not. Calipari is just the guy who inks the best players and keeps the balls inflated, remember. If that were really the case, laughed freshman Terrence Jones on Saturday, "A lot of guys would not touch the ball, probably."

Truth be told, Cal's real coaching strength has never been on better display than this year. He has coaxed a group of freshmen leading men (Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb) into a mind-meld with a group of veteran bit players (Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins) for a movie that seems headed for a Hollywood ending.

The key: Calipari finds a way to not only manage the cast but get it to perform with confidence and freedom necessary to play to the best of its individual abilities.

"It's just knowing that if you listen to coach that good things will happen to the team and you'll get better," said Knight. "He really allows guys to see that. And when you start to bond together and get better, everyone's game rises.

"It isn't just one person that gets all the credit. Everyone's individual play is seen. Like you can see Josh's game is starting to show. DeAndre's game is starting to show. Everyone lifts each other up."

This year, the rising has happened at just the right time. Kentucky is playing its toughest, most tenacious basketball. That's no guarantee the Cats will hurdle the long and strong Tar Heels for a rocket ride to Houston, but it does mean once again Calipari has put his team in the best position to win.

Once again, he's put it in the Elite Eight, his seventh with three different schools.

Calipari probably won't get much credit for that here in the same building where the Nets now play, but to get this far don't you have to know a little basketball?

Right, Joisey?

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