‘Winning’ only adjective that actually fits Calipari

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Choose your adjectives carefully regarding John Calipari. Someone will have an issue with your choice.

Recruits trust him. Many media members don’t. Some might call his top-flight recruiting hauls shady, but it’s impossible to deny his charm and track record. Not buying his attire and demeanor? Try telling that to former enemies who are now friends.

Perhaps most fitting — at least before Charlie Sheen corrupted it – would be winning. That’s Calipari, beyond anything else.  His teams win.

That’s why he’s at Kentucky. That’s why he makes roughly $4 million a year. But the winning isn’t why he’s the most controversial coach in America. He’s controversial because of the other adjectives, though, as S.L. Price recently wrote in Sports Illustrated, “Calipari is what’s wrong with college basketball, but not everyone can agree on what, exactly, wrong is.”

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The vacated Final Fours are where most start.

Calipari’s one of 12 coaches to take two teams to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four, yet the NCAA later vacated both those appearances because of rule violations. But the vacated appearances aren’t that simple.

Massachusetts’ 1996 run was stricken from the official record book because star center Marcus Camby accepted at least $28,000 in money, jewelry, prostitutes services and car rentals from two agents while in school. The school had to repay money earned from its four tournament victories. Camby left for the NBA. Calipari did the same.

Yet Camby said Calipari knew nothing about the gifts and Tom Yeager, the chair of the NCAA infractions committee agreed. Yeager wrote a letter to Calipari in 2004: “There is no doubt that you were unaware of the violations involving student-athlete Camby. In a sense, you were an ‘innocent victim’ in this.”

Most scoff at this notion. “How could he not know?!” There’s much a coach doesn’t know about his players, and much of it is out of his control. That shouldn’t overlook UMass’ fate, but it shouldn’t completely damn Calipari, either. After all, even John Wooden had booster issues.

The second vacated Final Four came at Memphis in 2008. This time it was an inadmissible test score.

Star point guard Derrick Rose couldn’t meet the required SAT score after taking it three times in Chicago. When he went to Detroit and passed, the test was later ruled invalid. Gone were an NCAA-record 38 wins and a spot in the championship game.

The NCAA didn’t implicate Calipari in its final ruling, but it didn’t slam the door shut like Yeager did with his letter. He may have escaped official sanctions, but it was more than enough for common sentiment to come to one conclusion: Cheater. (We said it, too.)

But wait. There’s more context.

Calipari’s previous Final Fours are stricken from the official record, yet he’s hardly the only coach in that category.  Nine coaches have “unofficially” been to Final Fours, including two Basketball Hall of Famers in Jack Ramsay and Larry Brown. And that’s just Final Fours.

In all, 34 schools have had NCAA tournament appearances vacated, which covers 37 coaches.  Five of those coaches – Brown, Ramsay, Lute Olson, Ralph Miller and Calipari’s opponent Saturday, Jim Calhoun – are Hall of Famers. Three other coaches who’ve won NCAA titles – Jim Valvano, Jim Harrick and Jerry Tarkanian – made the list with two different schools.

(This doesn’t include coaches who’ve had players that broke rules, but the NCAA ruled in the school’s favor, or players who had questionable high school transcripts, but were ultimately cleared.)

As John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote Thursday, that’s a fact omitted at nearly every turn when Calipari’s past is mentioned. It’s not an excuse – a coach should be responsible for what happens in his program – but important to note because Calipari’s usually the one dealing with the disdain.

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He’s been fighting that perception long before he reached the Final Four, too. 

Calipari famously feuded with other coaches while at UMass. Calhoun refused to schedule the Minutemen for various reasons. Temple coach John Chaney was once so enraged by Calipari, his reaction’s become legendary.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6jUpHClybQ]

While at Memphis, Calipari constantly fought the image of a dirty program because he brought in high-profile recruits. Some (DaJuan Wagner, Shawne Williams) didn’t stick around long. Years before it was commonplace, Calipari encouraged talented players to go pro. Who was he to deny them millions?

It boosted his recruiting profile, but hardly made Memphis the No. 1 holding ground for would-be pros. UConn, Arizona and Duke all produced more pros. And the school continually did well in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, or APR. Not that it helped him shed the slick image.

From the Memphis Commercial-Appeal in 2008:

Calipari was none too pleased when Memphis, largely because of its perceived lack of “program cleanliness” ranked 29th out of 29 teams in [a Basketball Times] survey. According to Basketball Times editor and survey panelist John Akers, Calipari was also “clearly annoyed” to come in 18th out of the 29 coaches, behind the likes of Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery (sixth), Creighton’s Dana Altman (11th), Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie (12th) and Xavier’s Sean Miller (17th).

Calipari dismissed the survey and its results out of hand when asked about it recently.

“It was done by a bunch of writers who have not been in my corner since I’ve coached,” he said. “If a guy has an agenda, what do I care what he writes?”

That’s how Calipari’s tried to deal with his image in recent years. Ignore it and go on with his winning. (The winning, I would think, helps one ignore everything else.) Calipari’s also done his best to cultivate friendships among former enemies, too. That includes Chaney.

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Then, there’s the Xs and Os. Calipari’s long been viewed as a recruiter first, coach second, a guy who you didn’t want on your sideline as the game wore on. Recruiters are slick and all smoke and mirrors. An Xs and Os guy? They’re the teachers of the game.

Yet, when Calipari outmaneuvered both Roy Williams and Thad Matta in a span of three days last week, it marked an important first step to changing the Calipari narrative.  The Wildcats (29-8) have talent with Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, but they also rely on former benchwarmers like Josh Harrellson.

Last year’s Elite Eight squad undoubtedly had more talent. But this year’s team is in the Final Four – and Calipari’s the main reason why. But it’s not about his coaching, it’s about his past.

To a point, that’s fair. Wondering if Kentucky will join UMass and Memphis isn’t unreasonable given his record. But at what point do we stop doubting? In three years? Five years? School president Lee Todd says this year’s Final Four banner is never coming down. He may be right.

In two years at Kentucky, the school’s dealt with probes into two players Calipari recruited: John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. Neither resulted in Kentucky violations.

Maybe that’s what so interesting about Calipari’s current situation. He’s at one of the nation’s proudest college hoops programs and shouldn’t have to be viewed as an outsider at an upstart school. Yet the doubts remain.

From Dan Wolken’s column in The Daily:  

What Kentucky offered Calipari, in his mind, wasn’t about money (he left behind more) or wins or recruits. It was a chance to be cleansed, to come from the shadows and bathe in the light of the sport’s elite, to push his way into an establishment that had always left him on the outside. Even more than basketball, it was the completion of his lifelong struggle to get to the other side of the tracks. …

Only, it hasn’t happened that way at all. Two months after taking the job, an NCAA investigation into Derrick Rose’s SAT surfaced at Memphis, eventually making him the first coach ever to have two Final Fours vacated. … No matter how hard he tried to run from who he is, Kentucky didn’t change a thing about Calipari. He’s still rich, still winning and still the most controversial coach in America. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Calipari supporters might question why I included a Wolken column. He used to cover Memphis while at the Commercial-Appeal and isn’t seen as a Calipari supporter. But that column – whether the ultimate point is correct or not – sums up the sentiment toward Calipari.

People don’t trust him. Some never will, no matter if he spends the rest of his days at Kentucky graduating 100 percent of players and never takes another five-star prospect. Two vacated Final Fours made up people’s mind. The natty suits, charming demeanor and sly smile rub some the wrong way.

He’s not a villain. He’s not an angel. He’s somewhere in-between, much like any big-time college coach. And right now, he’s winning at a place that’s accustomed to winning, and winning big.

Maybe that’s what irks people most.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Three Things To Know: Memphis embarrassed; Luka Garza shows out again

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The story of the night in hoops was Zion Williamson’s return to the basketball court.

But there was plenty of action in the college ranks that is worthy of talking about.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. No. 20 MEMPHIS LOST BY 40 TO TULSA

That is not a typo.

The 20th-ranked team in the country went into Tulsa, Okla., and lost to the Golden Hurricane, 80-40. Tulsa was up 40-17 at halftime. This was a butt-whooping that was so bad that all Tulsa needed to do was score a single point in the second half and they would have been able to get the win.

Memphis shot 28 percent from the floor. They were 2-for-21 from three. They finished the night with more turnovers (20) and fouls (22) than field goals (16). This was the worst loss that a top 25 team has suffered against a ranked team in 27 years, since UConn beat then-No. 12 Virginia by 41 points.

For Tulsa, this is a massive, massive win. They are currently sitting all alone in first place in the American standings, a half-game up on Houston.

So good for Frank Haith.

But the story here is Memphis, because the Tigers, considered title contenders before the season began, look anything-but right now.

“We let our defense dictate our offense,” head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters after the game. “We didn’t play any defense today. I think today was the first day we’ve done that ll year. I don’t know if guys overlooked Tulsa because of the name. We did our due diligence as a coaching staff to let them know what was going to happen with the matchup zone and how hard they play.

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

2. LUKA GARZA WENT NUTS AGAIN

If it seems like Garza is putting up monster numbers every games, it’s because he is.

On Wednesday night, the Hawkeyes welcomed newly-ranked Rutgers to campus and sent them home with an entertaining, hard-fought, 85-80 win. And Garza was the star of the show. He finished with 28 points, 13 boards, four blocks and two steals in the win, anchoring the paint as Iowa out-scored Rutgers 47-37 in the second half.

The big fella is now averaging 23 points and 10.5 boards.

Iowa has now won four straight games to move into a tie for third in the Big Ten standings — with Rutgers, among others — and they have won eight straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are a third of the way through a three-game homestand as well.

3. VIRGINIA TECH TAKES DOWN NORTH CAROLINA

Virginia Tech kept up their push to finish as the fourth-best team in the ACC with a 79-77 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

The Hokies are now 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, but the more interesting story might actually be the Tar Heels.

They are 8-10 on the season and 1-6 in the ACC. They have been a disaster for the last month, but there may be some reinforcements on the way in the shape of Cole Anthony. If he returns and the Tar Heels, who are 2-7 in his absence but have wins over Alabama and Oregon with him, get things back on the right track, they are likely going to find themselves in an incredibly awkward situation on Selection Sunday.

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Very other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure:

Kansas-Kansas State fight: Nuance, context the key in Silvio De Sousa discussion

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So I wanted to elaborate on a point that I made on twitter this morning because 280 characters just is not enough to be able to parse through the nuance of this situation.

If you missed it, the thread is here.

First and foremost, everyone involved in this needs to be punished. Silvio De Sousa needs to be suspended. Antonio Gordon needs to be suspended. James Love III needs to be suspended. David McCormack, and potentially Marcus Garrett, probably need to be suspended, although I’m not sure either of them actually through a punch. Point being, anyone else that threw a punch needs to be suspended.

Full stop.

I am not saying otherwise.

But I think that it is important to add some context to the conversation, and I also think that it is important to say this: This doesn’t make any of the young men involved in this fight bad people. Silvio De Sousa is not inherently a bad person because he picked up a stool, and the faux-trage of people calling for him to get booted out of school, arrested or even deported are, at best, completely over-reacting and, at worst, showing off a bit of their racial bias.

Before I get into this, one more thing: I am not condoning any of it. Fights like this should not happen.

But the reality of hyper-competitive athletics is that in emotionally charged situations, fights are going to happen. And if you’ve ever been in a fight like this, you know that things happen incredibly quickly. You’re not thinking, you’re reacting. You can’t call a 20 second time out to come up with a way to defend yourself when someone is throwing haymakers, you just do what you can in the moment.

So let’s talk about the moment, shall we?

De Sousa is the guy that set this entire thing in motion with the way that he reacted to DaJuan Gordon’s steal and layup attempt. The reason the Kansas State bench rushes over to the scene is because De Sousa is towering over one of their freshman teammates, and the reason the Kansas sideline runs over is because the Kansas State sideline does. What turned this incident into a full-fledged brawl was Antonio Gordon flying in and shoving De Sousa over the back of the basket stanchion. De Sousa reacts by throwing punches at two different Kansas State players when a third player — James Love III, in the black polo — comes flying in and squares up with him. They both throw a few punches at each other, knocking De Sousa back over the stanchion again as Kansas staffer Jeremy Case comes flying in to break them up.

Put yourself in De Sousa’s shoes here. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s fought three different Kansas State players, sees nothing but purple in front of him and just got knocked to the ground. Is he getting jumped? Does he have to fight them 1-on-3? That’s when he grabs the stool, to defend himself, and when he sees that no one is coming after him anymore, he drops it:

Context.

He should be suspended for 8-10 games.

He set this entire thing in motion.

But maybe, just maybe, tone down the rhetoric.

Women’s Wednesday: A new column dedicated to the women of college basketball

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Welcome to CBT’s first ever weekly women’s basketball column. I’m here to help provide you with some insight into the world of women’s college hoops.

Women’s sports are reaching new heights, especially in basketball. The WNBA announced a new collective bargaining agreement starting in the 2020 season that includes a 53 percent raise, maternity benefits, a base salary and performance-based bonuses. This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be broadcasted in its entirety on ESPN, with the semifinals and championship game premiering in primetime.

Female athletes are beginning to garner the attention they deserve. Sabrina Ionescu is drawing national attention for a historic senior season, as she has 22 career triple-doubles and became Oregon’s all-time leading basketball scorer in her career-high 37-point performance against Stanford last week. In the WNBA, women such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and more are shattering gender stereotypes and proving that women can play basketball at a high level, just as men can.

While women’s sports have made a push into the public eye, there is still quite a way to go. It’s important to place an emphasis on the women who excel in their sport and give them the spotlight they deserve. Too many times women are only given credit through a masculine lens, whether that’s only getting attention after receiving praise from men, being compared to a male counterpart, or being a footnote in a male athlete’s story. Female athletes deserve to be their own story.

That’s what I’m hoping to do with this column over the rest of the season — give women a place to shine. I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the amazing women that play in the NCAA and hear from them about their experiences, the records they’re setting and their basketball journey. While I won’t even begin to make a dent in the breadth of talent available in women’s college basketball, I hope to use this column each week to take a deeper dive into some incredible women, as well as give you an idea of what’s happening around the country that week.

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

South Carolina sits atop the world of college hoops, earning 22 first-place votes from the AP panel to nab the No. 1 spot. The Gamecocks have an 18-1 record with wins over ranked opponents such as Maryland, Baylor, Kentucky and most recently Mississippi State.

Baylor — the reigning national champs —- sits in the No. 2 spot in the rankings after dethroning UConn and ending its dominant 98-game winning streak at home. The Lady Bears received six of the first-place votes from the AP committee.

The rest of the top five is filled out by UConn at No. 3, Oregon at No. 4 after beating then-No. 3 Stanford, and Louisville rounds it out at fifth, receiving the last two first-place votes.

In a monster performance against Stanford, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu had a career-high 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. She has four triple-doubles on the season and has a chance to become the NCAA’s first player to eclipse 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. As of Jan. 18, she has 2,265 points, 904 rebounds and 928 assists.

DePaul remains unbeaten in the Big East, with Chante Stonewall leading the team with 17.9 ppg while Kelly Campbell has 102 assists on the season, ranking No. 8 in the country.

Baylor’s 40-point victory over then-No. 17 West Virginia is their 45th consecutive Big 12 win.

Mississippi State’s JaMya Mingo-Young and Aliyah Matharu combined for 24 points and four steals off the bench in a close 79-81 loss to South Carolina on Monday.

Star freshman and No. 1 recruit Haley Jones suffered an apparent right knee injury and left Stanford’s Sunday win over Oregon State. She is scheduled to have an MRI but the team has given no further updates.

North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane has 20+ points in four of her last six games and 10 double-doubles on the season, helping the Wolfpack to a dominant win over Florida State last week.

UCLA became the last undefeated team to fall with a double overtime loss to USC — who hadn’t yet won a Pac-12 matchup —  on Friday.

Northwestern made its debut this season in the Top-25, coming in at No. 22 — its first ranking since the 2015-2016 season.

No. 3 Oregon faces rival No. 7 Oregon State on Friday in a crucial Pac-12 matchup.

Stanford freshman Fran Belini threw down a one-handed dunk in pregame warmup before facing Oregon that you HAVE to see: