NEW ORLEANS – By the time that Louisville and Kentucky tipped off on Saturday afternoon, I’m reasonably sure that every single college hoops fan across the country could recite, from memory, the entire story behind the deteriorated relationship between John Calipari and Rick Pitino.
That’s how much play that story line got in the media, and if you weren’t sick of it by then, than you may have been the only one.
Things may not be all that different heading into Monday’s national title game, with the only change being that instead of hearing and reading endless words on how Pitino and Calipari no longer want to hang out, you’ll be hearing and reading all about the last time Calipari and Bill Self met up in the national title game.
It was 2008. It was Bill Self’s most talented Kansas team taking on Calipari’s Derrick Rose-led Memphis Tigers. (Well, technically, Kansas didn’t actually beat anyone in the title game. You can thank Rose for that.) It was an opportunity for two head coaches to try and justify their legacies.
If you’ve forgotten, at that point in his Kansas tenure, Self wasn’t exactly the most popular head coach in Jayhawk history. There were the first round exits against Bradley and Bucknell. There were the four careers trips he had made to the Elite Eight — two of which came with Kansas — without a Final Four to show for it. Even in 2008, he barely got KU over the hump, beating Davidson by two points when a Jason Richards three-ball bounced harmlessly off the side of the back board.
In the same vein, the 2008 season was the only time that Calipari had managed to get Memphis to the Final Four. It was also the first time that he had put together a team in the one-and-done model he currently employs at Kentucky. And while that trip to the title game helped to legitimize Coach Cal’s standing nationally, his inability to win a national title in his career is one of the biggest reasons that he’s still considered more of a talent aggregator than a basketball coach.
This season is a chance to change that. Winning a national title would define him. It would force the media that loves to drag his name through the mud to put him on the same level as guys like Self and Jim Boeheim. As of now, Cal’s title game legacy involves missed free throws and Mario Chalmers more than One Shining Moment and a net necklace.
Self is also looking to change the way that he is viewed. His Kansas program has won at least a share of eight Big 12 titles in a row. The dominance his program has in a very good basketball league is mind-boggling, but you don’t hear his name mentioned enough when it comes to the best coaches in the country. Winning his second title in five years would be a great way to change that fact.
Both coaches have a lot riding on the outcome of this game, and it goes far beyond the simple fact they coached against each other in the same game five years ago.