By Jason Keidel
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It was supposed to be the undercard, the big fight before the Big Fight.
But Duke vs. Kentucky, the hardwood precursor to Mayweather-Pacquiao, won’t happen.
It would have been a boon for basketball, a ratings tsunami, perhaps the biggest event since Michigan State vs. Indiana State in 1979. But Wisconsin said something else. The Badgers crashed the party, placed a brick wall on the road to perfection.
And while the white-hot drama of a Duke-Kentucky, Coach K vs. Coach Cal matchup would have been irresistible, the long-term impact trumps the ephemeral thrill.
Now that he doesn’t have his flawless team, his Picasso, John Calipari doesn’t have the incentive or the prerogative to flee the blue grass for the greener grass of the NBA.
There would have been no novelty to a return to the pros. In the NBA, Calipari would just be another suit, another retread trying to redeem himself over his failed tenure in New Jersey.
But pride and new challenges don’t beat an empire. Kentucky is the flagship program of college basketball, and it deserves to keep Calipari. And while Big Blue Nation is surely reeling from the Saturday’s agony, falling a few points short of perfection — or at least a 40-minute shot at it — the long-term prospects are more glowing now than they would have been had they gone 40-0.
After a pristine season, a second title in four years, what would Kentucky have left to offer Calipari beyond an epic paycheck? He would have climbed the bejeweled mountain of history, joined John Wooden and Bob Knight in the high orbit of perfection.
People like Bill Parcells, Larry Brown and Calipari are perpetual motion, eternally uneasy with their jobs, their futures, and themselves. Is that part of what makes them so good? Who knows? With greatness comes chasms in character, a fidgety soul that leads great leaders to all kinds of outposts.
By losing with a conga line of McDonald’s All-Americans to a team with none has to hurt in ways that will haunt Calipari and, even better, keep him in Kentucky.
For the cynical sort who say Calipari is exactly what’s wrong with the college game, which has become a pit stop for the one-and-done prodigies who bristle at the the thought of a classroom, he didn’t create the environment. He merely remolds it to his advantage.
Sure, he’s slick and slides past while his past programs have crumbled. But the luxury of winning has always been that we ignore your more inelegant history. No one cares that Pat Riley faxed in is resignation to the Knicks, that Bill Belichick left the Jets in the lurch. Nick Saban abandoned the Dolphins long before his contract ended. Bobby Petrino has burned more bridges than Godzilla. No one remembers.
The true hypocrisy is that college players provide their programs with countless cash and endless cachet, but make no money and can’t transfer while any coach can pack up and bolt for a new homestead. But no one cares.
Like many tortured nomads, Calipari is about to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, according to a report from CBSSports.com. His record on the court speaks more loudly than his bio away from it.
College athletics need monoliths. With a turnstile at the court and gridiron, turnover every year, the coach remains, the emblem of the sport, their state, and the state of their sport. No one squirts more juice into college basketball than John Calipari.
What new stable of studs has he brought in this year? Has he found his next savant? His next Anthony Davis? Can anyone plow through the interminable college basketball season sans defeat? If anyone can, it’s Calipari. The paradox of this failure is that it ensures more success in Lexington. Or it should.
Calipari, the quintessential mercenary, has found a home in Kentucky. We can only hope he continues to think it’s his home.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel