More Grudging Praise for Coach One-and-Done

They are bonding, as kids do, with a video game. It isn’t lost on us that the video game is called “NBA 2K,’’ because the NBA is where several Kentucky players believe they’re headed once they conclude this preliminary exercise known as the NCAA tournament.

“I got the first seed,” said James Young, a vital member of John Calipari’s one-and-done freshmen society. “I’m out here winning. I’m trying to get to the Final Four with my team.’’

Seems life is imitating the user interface. When they were finished with their fun in a St. Louis hotel, the Wildcats jumped on a bus and again tried their damnedest to get to the Final Four. An electrifying late rally pushed them past their bitter blood rival, Louisville, in a 74-69 victory that once again forces us to pass grudging praise onto the mad scientist who created this kiddie monster.

Don’t bother conducting a poll. Without debate, Calipari is the most loathed man in college basketball, primarily because what he preaches is not college basketball but something you’d have seen Kevin Trudeau hawking about college basketball on a 3:30 a.m. TV informercial (Note: Trudeau was sentenced to a 10-year jail sentence for consumer fraud). Under the phony premise that his players are his only real priority as a coach — his leadership book, to be strategically released in time for the Final Four, is called “Players First’’ — Calipari is on an evangelical soapbox that he can point one-and-doners immediately to the NBA while they try to win a quickie NCAA title for Kentucky.

Of course, all he’s doing is playing to the soft academic weaknesses of teenaged hoops prodigies — “Gee, if I play for him, I can blow off school and be in the NBA the following June,’’ goes the thought process — so St. Cal can pick the players he wants and annually reload his assembly line of talent. Once he won a national championship with two such one-and-doners (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) two years ago, Calipari had his street cred. He entered this season with eight high-school All-Americans on his roster, including a class of six freshman generally hailed as the best-ever recruiting class in the sport’s history.

“We don’t just play college basketball,’’ St. Cal announced as the season began. “We ARE college basketball.’’

No, you are a feeder system — for the grateful NBA, for ravenous and demanding Kentucky fans and for the enormous Calipari ego. And until this past Sunday, a whole lot of us were delighted to see Kentucky, a season after failing to reach the NCAA tournament, struggling with maturity, cohesion and listening issues and appearing ready to exit early from this year’s tournament. Imagine: Only months after suggesting his team might be the first ever to go 40-0, St. Cal was taking 10 losses into the Midwest Regional. He was a walking embarrassment — petulantly blowing off a post-loss press conference, complaining his team was “the most overanalyzed team in the history of sports’’ (didn’t he suggest Kentucky might go 40-0?), then complaining that his players were “counting on me too much.’’

Wait. Players First, right? And those same players were counting on Calipari too much when they needed him most? Opinions were mounting that he was the next one done at Kentucky, eyeing the New York Knicks. Some were demanding his ouster, sensing St. Cal was much more a recruiting con man than an actual coach. His daughter, Erin, defended him on Twitter: “People saying my dad should be fired, he won 81% of his games @ UK. Coach K 79% Duke. Roy Williams 78% @ UNC. Pitino 74% @ UL … #forreference.’’

We waited for the crash.

Instead, Calipari’s parachute opened.

As if a season’s worth of tongue-lashings and ass-kickings finally were resonating in a single two-hour sound chamber, the Kentucky kids melded as one against Louisville and Wichita State and suddenly looked like championship contenders. While presumed future NBA stars Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were flaming out of the tournament with eyesore performances, Calipari watched in bliss as the embattled twin brothers, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, combined for 39 points and lottery pick Julius Randle contributed his usual double-double in eliminating a 35-0 Wichita force that nearly won the national title last April. Calipari, understand, has a bad hip. It didn’t stop hop from leaping by the bench as the buzzer sounded.

“I’m whistling and skipping,’’ he said.

The purists almost had their man nailed to the wall, at long last. They’d just about run him out of college basketball and taken back the game.

Now, the bad guy has life. After beating Rick Pitino in a classic Sweet 16 game in the Midwest Regional, St. Cal is the talk of the sports world. Once again, as they exhibited the previous Sunday, the kids were more poised in the final minutes than an experienced Louisville team. Aaron Harrison made a killer three-pointer with 39 seconds left, and Randle cooly made two free throws to give Kentucky its second NCAA tournament victory over the Cardinals in the last three years. Kentucky won the national title that season, Louisville did a year ago. Is it Calipari’s turn again, in college basketball’s version of Alabama-Auburn dominance? That we’re even pondering the question, after seeing Calipari and his lads struggle most of the season, seems preposterous.

But do ask the question. This team and this coach are proving us wrong.

“I told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood,” Calipari said. “You can fight or you can brace yourself for the next shot. They fought.”

How is all of this happening? “They finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team,’’ Calipari said. “It’s just taken a long time.’’

Not many teams recover from a seven-point deficit with four and a half minutes left on the tournament’s second weekend. The kids have learned from their lumps. “I didn’t really feel any pressure,” Randle said. “I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us. I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us.”

Calipari looked relieved and proud as he heard them speak. He realizes his critics are vocal, harsh and relentless. He knew they were ready to bury him just a week earlier. How do you like him now? “This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I’d hoped,’’ he said. “This team and what people said about this team — all we’ve done all year is continue to get batter. Like every team, you hit a hole when you don’t play well. But they believed in themselves.’’

That is bad news for Michigan and the rest of the field, loaded as the brackets are with power contenders. Remember, Kentucky rallied and nearly stole the SEC title game two weekends ago from Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and clear favorite to reach the Final Four out of the South Regional. There might be seven NBA futures on this team. Nothing is more dangerous in March — and April — than pro-skilled players emerging as one with the stakes at their highest. It was sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, now fighting an ankle injury, who said last week that Kentucky would “shock the world,’’ adding, “There’s a lot of people that don’t think we can make a run at it. And you know, a lot of people don’t want to see us make a run at it.’’

St. Cal didn’t like hearing that. Only he can make the public proclamations, you see. But he must love the burgeoning confidence.

“It shows how much work we’ve put in, how much we’re getting better,’’ Andrew Harrison said.

“Here’s what happened with my team,’’ Calipari said. “They now are putting themselves in a position where they’re accepting roles how they have to play. So we’re becoming a better team. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they’re playing better and more confident. And the other thing is, because we’ve been through so much throughout the year, they’re stronger. So a little lull in the game doesn’t affect them. They’re been through all that. Their will to win, to stay with it — all that, they’ve been up against.’’

We love most March stories because they are embraceable, charming. Nothing is warm and fuzzy about St. Cal and the rise of his one-and-doners. Do not forget that he is the only coach who had to vacate two Final Four appearances because of NCAA rules violations, the first at UMass because Marcus Camby took money from an agent, the second at Memphis because Derrick Rose allegedly had someone else take an SAT test for him.

At the center of Calipari’s self-righteous rampage through the sport is a familiar question: Should college athletes be paid? Again, they are being rewarded with full-ride scholarships that, if they chose to stay the full four years instead of one, are worth beyond $200,000 at many schools. They also have a regularly televised resume for their next employer, something the science major and music major don’t have. They also live like kings in beautiful residence and training complexes, as Kentucky players know. Should they also be paid a stipend out of the disgustingly mammoth pot now shared by the NCAA, the TV networks and the programs themselves? Certainly. But that won’t stop the cries of 21st-century slavery.

And that won’t stop “heroes’’ like John Calipari from swooping in and protecting these kids, Players First, even when you know and I know that he’s another scam artist trying to win in a filthy sport. But give him this: He is proving, again, that he can take a team of raw kids and develop them into championship contenders. And proving that his players finally can enjoy the ride when it had been so excruciating for months.

“We’re probably gonna have the tournament tonight,” Alex Poythress said of the video-game competition. “I think I’m a 2-seed. I don’t know if (Young) is the No. 1 overall seed. We’re still kids. We still play video games.”

“It’s important, team bonding,’’ Randle said. “Just having fun.”

We can tell.

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