Virginia head coach Tony Bennett was named the USBWA Coach of the Year on Monday.
The Cavaliers had a terrific season, going 29-2 in the regular season before bowing out to North Carolina in the ACC tournament and, on Sunday, No. 7 Michigan State in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.
Now, if we’re going to be fair — which a lot of people haven’t been — the Cavaliers lost their All-American wing and best three-point shooter, Justin Anderson, to both a fractured finger and an appendectomy in February. With him, they were arguably the best non-Kentucky team in the country. Without him, they were still good, but their offensive droughts eventually did the Cavaliers in.
That’s not Bennett’s fault, unless you blame him for an ill-timed case of appendicitis, but it was his doing turning a team that did not include one top 50 recruit into a legitimate national title contender.
There’s no question that he did a terrific coaching job this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that John Calipari deserved the National Coach of the Year award. (Fun fact: He was named NBCSports.com National Coach of the Year.)
I know, I know. This Kentucky team was supposed to go 40-0. It was supposed to be the best team in the country. The Wildcats have a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA Draft picks. They have as much talent on one roster as we’ve seen in a long, long time. But if you’re telling me that’s an argument against Coach Cal being named National Coach of the Year, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
For starters, doing so ignores the fact that Calipari was actually able to amass all that talent in one program. You realize how difficult that is to do? There are some terrific coaches and recruiters out there whose careers are made by landing one top 20 recruit every two or three years. Cal has nine on his roster — none of whom are seniors — and that doesn’t include first-team All-American Willie Cauley-Stein, who was “just” a top 40 recruit.
It also ignores just how difficult it is to win when your roster is loaded with that much talent. Bill Self hasn’t been able to get to the Sweet 16 the past two seasons despite having players like Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander coming through his Kansas program, and Self is widely regarded — and rightfully so — as one of college basketball’s best coaches.
But that’s not what’s most impressive about this Kentucky team.
Calipari has managed to convince each and every one of the players on his roster to buy into the idea that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Every single player in his rotation has his eye on the NBA, and yet every single one has sacrificed minutes and shots in order to play a role on what could be the first team to ever go 40-0 in a season.
Think about it like this: Karl Towns, who may end up being the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, isn’t going to show up on many All-American teams this spring. But if he had gone somewhere else, somewhere that would have featured him offensively and allowed to play 30-35 minutes a night, he might be in the same conversation as Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor when it comes to naming the National Player of the Year. He’s that talented.
Devin Booker? Imagine the season that he could have had if he had ended up at, say, Michigan or Florida. Marcus Lee would have been the missing piece on California’s front line had he ended up a Golden Bear. I could keep going.
The bottom line is this: In a day and age where elite basketball prospects get ridiculed for being selfish, uncoachable and solely concerned about getting theirs — their money, their shots, their individual glory, all at the cost of their winning percentage — Coach Cal has this Kentucky team, loaded with those elite prospects, playing unselfish, team-oriented, defense-first basketball.
Coach of the Year always ends up being about who out-performs expectations, but when your expectations are 40-0, simply living up to them is damn impressive.