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.”
Three Things Learned About UK from the NCAA Eastern Regional
1. UK Is Balanced On Offense – Going into the Final Four, it is clear that the fourth-seeded Wildcats are arguably the most balanced team left in the tournament. Against North Carolina, the Wildcats played both inside and outside, shooting 55 percent from 3-point range and holding a plus-7 advantage of touches in the paint. It’s that type of balance on offense – the ability to shoot from distance but being able to penetrate and get points inside that can lead teams to win the tournament.
2. There Are Depth Issues - The problem with the Wildcats is that they go just six deep with Darius Miller the only true contributor off the bench for John Calipari’s team. That lack of a deep bench could hurt them next weekend against UConn as Jim Calhoun will run his Huskies bench at Kentucky. In the win over North Carolina, six Kentucky players accounted for 99 percent of the minutes played by the Wildcats. If UConn can penetrate and force Kentucky to foul, they can force Calipari to turn to his bench, something he doesn’t want to do.
3. Crashing the Dance- A big reason why Kentucky is continuing to dance as March turns into April is their ability to rebound. The Wildcats aren’t the biggest team in the tournament but they were third in the SEC on the glass and against a bigger Tar Heels team, they rebounded very well, including nine offensive rebounds. It’s a solid stat given the rebounding presence of Tyler Zeller and John Henson down low for North Carolina, among the best in the game on the glass.