Different Year, Same Result
Can John Calipari’s style of basketball win an NCAA title?
by Quinn Peterson
This year’s NCAA Tournament has featured more than its share of surprises. But in a season full of parity, inconsistency and uncertainty, an all too familiar scene remained. It’s March and John Calipari’s team is on the ropes. He’s pacing the sidelines, sweating profusely, hands on his head. And in the end, the face of disappointment.
Again, after a tremendous season, Coach Cal comes up short.
It has become an annual event, and for the last five years, this is how it’s ended.
To be fair, his success in terms of wins and loses in that time span is remarkable and unmatched. He finished up his nine-year tenure at Memphis with four consecutive 30+ win seasons, including 38 wins in ‘08-09 (which was, of course, later vacated).
Throw in his 35 Ws this year at Kentucky, and that brings his record to 172-17 in the last half-decade.
Each year he’s possessed what was arguably — if not hands down — the most talented team in the country, his rosters filled with more 5-star players than a Howard Garfinkel summer camp. A list of players that includes both last year’s ROY (Derrick Rose), as well as this year’s soon-to-be owner of the same title (Tyreke Evans).
The success can be directly linked to his use of the dribble-drive motion offense. Beginning in ’05-06, the dribble-drive has been the staple of Cal’s programs, and with the help of Vance Walberg, he has truly revolutionized basketball with his elected style of play.
It’s an offense predicated on guys breaking down their defender one-on-one and getting to the basket, playing perfectly into the hands of pro-style, NBA-ready guards such as Rose, Evans, and this year, John Wall.
“It lets us play to the players we are,” said Rodney Carney a few years back describing the offense.
But, on the tail-end of Saturday’s season-ending loss, the question begs to ask: When — if ever — will Coach Cal win one? Can he ever win one, given the system he preaches?
The peculiar brand of basketball (plus outstanding, yet underrated, defense) is no doubt what guided him to three consecutive undefeated C-USA seasons, three consecutive Elite Eight’s, the most wins ever in a single season (later vacated), and three No. 1-seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
But at the same, it’s also what has led to his teams’ eventual downfall. Each year, they roll through the season, cruising into the Tournament, and each year, they find themselves looking up at the clock with the same feeling of disbelief, as their season comes to an abrupt end.
In 2006, the one-seeded Tigers, coasted through their first three rounds of the Tournament. Then, after putting up point totals of 94, 72 and 80, the Tigers would run into UCLA in the Elite Eight; a team that held them to 45 points. The Bruins stymied Memphis’ offense, instead making it a grind-it-out game. The result: 17-54 shooting for the Tigers, good for 29 percent.
The pattern begins.
A year later, the Tigers returned to the Elite Eight, this time clashing with Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Ohio St. But much like the year before, Memphis’ offense would again be stifled, and was held to 26-65 from the field — 40 percent.
The year of DRose, 2008, featured the infamous National Championship collapse, in which the Tigers were 1-5 from the free throw line in the final 1:12 of regulation. A game that seemed to safely be in the hands of Memphis until Mario Chalmers decided otherwise. Though it was Coach Cal’s best effort, his team would again get smothered, shooting 39 percent, and he’d again come up short of National Championship status.
This year was more of the same was no different. If there were any season it seemed as though Coach Cal would for sure get there, this seemed to be it. Kentucky was the most talented team in the country, and after heavyweights like Kansas and Syracuse fell, it looked like the path may have been clear.
But in the Sweet 16, facing West Virginia, it happened again. Coach Cal’s team left completely “flummoxed”, in the words of Seth Davis. Thirty-four percent shooting from the field, 4-32 from deep.
As a coach as well as a fan of the game, I love the dribble-drive and its concepts, so I’m not campaigning against its use. But, it must be asked, is it a style that wins championships or merely wins games? Thus far, it’s only done the latter.
It’s no coincidence why they lose. It happens the same way every time. Cal’s teams get D’d up and are unable to find efficient ways to score the ball. End of story. All that was expected is halted quicker than a Russell Simmons dismissal. Thanks for coming out, God bless you, good night.
And like that, the season’s over. One loss too many.
So far, Coach Cal and the dribble-drive are to college basketball what Don Nelson and Nellie Ball are to the NBA. High-octane, highlight-filled offenses that have translated into plenty of regular season wins, but never the one that matters most.
While it seems that every year may be the year that Coach Cal finally gets over the hump, it is still yet to happen. He’ll surely have plenty more opportunities to come, but right now, he’s shooting a lower percentage than his teams in bigs games.
We’ve seen coaches struggle to get over the hump before. Bill Self most recently removed his name from that list. Coach Cal’s still remains, though, and the question does, too.
Can he win the big one, or will the dribble-drive continue to keep him from cutting down the nets on the last day of the season?