It was a study in contrast last night in Newark, N.J., as Kentucky advanced to its first Final Four in 13 years with a 76-69 win over North Carolina.
On one end was Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, pacing stoically up and down the powder blue sidelines. Like a grandfather, the snow-haired Williams watched somewhat emotionless, even as his team clawed back within one point with a minute left.
Then there was John Calipari, who sat down for a combined 29 seconds during the East Regional final, spending a good portion airborne in disgust over a missed defensive assignment or in celebration for yet another Brandon Knight 3-pointer.
“Coach is the fastest guy on the team,” guard Doron Lamb joked after the game. “It was normal from him. He yells at us sometimes, but sometimes you need someone to yell at you.”
Angst and joy go hand in hand for Calipari, whose favorite expression seems to come after a questionable call by the referees goes against his team. Arms start out wide with his feet pushed together, forming a ‘Y’ type formation with his body. Then hands go on top of his head as he looks towards the heavens for an answer as to why everyone wearing a whistle seems to have it out for his team – his boys. After a scream and a muffled bit of profanity, his hands end up on his face, running down his body till his arms are at his side.
Then in an instant, all is forgotten as he’s a ball of movement again, back down to the other end of the bench to yell instructions to his team.
“He’s been like that all year. We bought into what he was saying,” Darius Miller said. “We had a rough patch there for awhile but we got better, especially on defense.”
Calipari’s Wildcats had a tough stretch before the SEC season ended when in early February they lost three of four games over a 12-day stretch. That drop in form helped prepare Kentucky for their run through the tournament, toughening them up and causing the Wildcats to focus on fundamentals. From the losses they developed a high energy level reminiscent of their coach.
And the passion of Calipari resonates on the court. His players look at him after every bad play with pleading eyes, hoping that a spot on the bench isn’t waiting for them. Calipari is his team’s biggest advocate but also their biggest critic, holding them responsible for every miscue. But he’s also highly involved as Calipari calls nearly every offensive set for his team, a veritable second point guard on offense.
The energy and enthusiasm carries over to the Wildcats on the floor, who brought a much higher energy level to the game than the Tar Heels. Kentucky went after every loose ball and though outsized by their opponent, fought their way for nine offensive rebounds. In a way, they mirror their coach.
“Coach wanted us to come out with energy and passion for 40 minutes,” forward Eloy Vargas said. “He just has a feel for the game that gives us confidence.”