When John Calipari signed Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague last November and December, he simply did what he does every year: pick up two more elite high school talents. (He has signed 12 five-star recruits, not including Enes Kanter, since becoming the Kentucky head coach in 2009.) When he signed Anthony Davis though, Calipari gained a once-in-a-generation type of talent, and he did so for this very moment: the Final Four.
In Big Blue Nation, where winning is a relief as much as a joy, merely reaching two consecutive NCAA Final Fours is not good enough.
Calipari, who enjoys a $36.5 million salary over eight years with benefits (Pitino makes nearly $4.1 million per year), has, of course, been here before -- with great teams -- but he's never closed the deal. He had Marcus Camby at UMass, Derrick Rose and an 8-point lead at Memphis, and Brandon Knight last year. With all due respect to those teams, none of them came close to boasting the sheer ability of this Kentucky squad.
With seven legitimate NBA prospects, including the likely first and second picks in June's NBA draft (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist), Kentucky's talent level is downright scary. And unlike other top seeds with national title aspirations, the Wildcats haven't had to deal with a glimmer of injury concerns. Michigan State's best defender and second leading rebounder, Branden Dawson, tore an ACL; North Carolina's Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist; and Syracuse's Fab Melo was deemed ineligible before the tournament even started.
Heading into the madness, Calipari downplayed the pressure to win a championship at Kentucky and as the top overall seed in the tournament. "I'm feeling like I always feel," he said. "Let's do this. Let's go [one] game at a time. Let's go [one] possession at a time. And let me try to get my team playing as well as they can play. That's the pressure I'm feeling, but I feel it every time I bring a team in this tournament."
Whether that remains true as we get set for the final games in New Orleans, the pressure for Coach Cal to win the big one now is palpable. 36-2 Kentucky is averaging an insane 1.27 points per possession in March, good enough for the second best offensive efficiency per KenPom rankings. It has the best and most dominant defensive player in Davis, who has helped the Wildcats shatter the all-time single season team record for total blocks. And then there are the fans, who are clamoring for a national title like little kids clamor for their mommies at their first sleep-away camp.
Whether or not Calipari delivers the goods this year, he has already revived a sleeping giant in a Kentucky program that hasn't enjoyed this type of success and excitement since 1998, when Tubby Smith cut down the nets in his first season at the helm. Yet in a Final Four that features teams with a combined 13 national championships and a semifinals rematch with bitter rival Louisville, led by former Kentucky coach Pitino (who won it all in 1996), anything short of a championship would still be a shocking failure to Big Blue Nation.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Calipari made $36.5 million annually.
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