It’s Cal vs. K Yet Again

Coach John Calipari.

By Steve Kaufman

Photo by Victoria Graff

Isn’t it extraordinary how Duke announced the recruiting of Marvin Bagley III, and everyone just fell in line to proclaim the Blue Devils as the next NCAA champion?

Experts who pointed out that, yes, John Calipari has another great recruiting class, but that the team overall is woefully lacking in experience, now say that freshman Bagley is the perfect puzzle piece to Mike Krzyzewski’s can’t-miss group this season.

The fact is, Duke has only one returning player of significance. And Grayson Allen is good (if tripping your opponent were an allowable defensive move). But the team is loaded with players whose best attribute is shooting. Duke’s still allowed just one ball, right? NCAA rules. And someone has to play point.

The difference in all the analysis seems to boil down to Krzyzewski versus Calipari. The golden knight from Chicago and West Point, versus the scrappy hustler from Pittsburgh and Clarion. The guy who has been at one program for 37 years, versus the guy who’s moved around, college to pros, the guy who better-dealed Memphis for Kentucky and left a residue of hard feelings.

The basketball writers who look past Roy Williams dropping Kansas for North Carolina, Bill Self dumping Illinois for Kansas, or Steve Alford fleeing New Mexico for UCLA, can’t get past Calipari’s interest in wanting to be part of the inner circle, one of the blue bloods.

Krzyzewski’s best attribute is apparently attracting high schoolers with the promise of improving their games in a hurry. Whereas Calipari’s best attribute is seducing high schoolers with the promise that he’ll turn them into lottery picks in just one year. And that’s different . . . how?

When Duke won the 2015 national championship with a freshman-heavy team, Krzyzewski was honored for his savvy coaching. When Kentucky won the 2012 national championship with a freshman-heavy team, Calipari was resented for succeeding when everybody was convinced his approach would fail.

One problem there was that Krzyzewski’s 2015 team won in a year when Cal had the best college basketball team in 40 years-—maybe ever. So, ipso facto, K must be a genius and Cal must be an underachiever.

Genius vs. underachiever? Let’s look at the dry statistics. We all know that Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of the planet, but let’s look only at the period since Calipari joined Kentucky in 2009.

In those eight seasons, the Darling of Durham has an overall record of 237-53 whereas the Liar of Lexington has gone 249-53.

In the NCAA tournaments, K’s Dukies have gone 20-6. Cal’s Cats have gone 26-6.

Duke has been to two Final Fours. Kentucky has been to four. Duke has won the whole thing twice, Kentucky once.

And on that evening in June when the straw of all their labors is spun into NBA gold, Calipari has produced 24 first-round picks. Krzyzewski has produced 14.

This is not to slam Krzyzewski, who has compiled an extraordinary record at a small, select school, where he’s competing directly with the size and tradition of the behemoth state institution up the road a piece. K is a polarizing figure, much like Calipari, in that, love him or hate him, if he’s your coach, you love him!

But it’s remarkable to me how similar the records are of a basketball genius who knows just what to do with an overabundance of freshman talent, and a shell-game operator who gets them on campus and just rolls the ball out and lets them play on their way to the NBA. VT

  • Excellent observations.
    I applaud you, Mr. Kaufman.