NEW ORLEANS – As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Kentucky’s 67-59 win over Kansas in the national title game, Marquis Teague tossed the ball in the air while the fireworks stashed in the bottom of the scoreboard hanging directly over the court exploded, igniting a downpour of confetti and streamers.
Kentucky’s reaction, however, was not exactly what you would have expected from a team that just won the national title. There was some running and some jumping and some high-fives, but the wild exuberance was replaced with what appeared to be a sense of satisfaction.
They had accomplished what they had expected to do from day one. This was expected. The job was done. What’s next?
The postgame reaction was completely in line with the pregame introductions. While many college players go through the intro lines yelling and screaming while half-running, half-skipping through their teammates, every single Kentucky starter simply walked from the bench to the middle of the court. This wasn’t a game; it was time to go to work.
That attitude, that mindset, is what makes this Kentucky team so likeable.
It is so easy to paint the Wildcats as the villains, the Evil Empire run by a slick-haired slimeball that makes your friendly, neighborhood used-car salesman seem on the up-and-up. It’s something that John Calipari embraces. He’s not in this business to make friends. He’s in it to win games.
But the truth of the matter is that this season, Calipari put together a group of kids that makes it very difficult to dislike them. Anthony Davis is a laid-back superstar, a guy that is so unaware of his superstardom that it doesn’t register that asking for an extra 30 seconds to take off his second shoe is acceptable; that wouldn’t even consider not putting his Powerball Jackpot worth of earning potential by leaping off of en elevated court and over a media table to chase down a loose ball. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a funny, friendly kid battling a stutter. Darius Miller is a senior leader that has gone from the NIT under Billy Gillispie to a national title as a sixth-man for the Wildcats.
What makes it even easier to fall in love with some of the players on this team is that they legitimately seem to be a family.
Coach Cal isn’t shy about telling the world just how much he loves the players in his program, and it appears to be rubbing off. As the confetti was falling to the court after the buzzer, Davis and Terrence Jones shared an embrace, with Davis telling Jones that he loves him. Two minutes later, as Davis hugged Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft said, “I love you. This is what we came to Kentucky for.”
Calipari’s most important skill as a coach isn’t his ability to recruit or the way he can manipulate the media to get them to write what he wants written. It is how he is able to mold a roster full of superstars and all-american recruits into a team. Jones is as despised across the country as any player on this Kentucky team. Ask any Louisville fan. Kentucky’s only regular season loss was directly attributable to Jones’ pouting in the second half.
By the end of the season, Cal had managed to get Jones — who returned to school for his sophomore year to improve his draft stock — to buy into the idea that he is the single most talented role player in the country.
That makes it very difficult to continue hating him without a rooting interest in the matter the same way it is very difficult to dislike this UK team as a whole.