Sunday January 23, 2011

John Calipari isn't sure his University of Kentucky basketball team will get to the Final Four this year. He's not certain that future recruiting classes will always be stellar.

But Calipari looked me in the eye last Sunday in Springfield and said Derek Kellogg will make the University of Massachusetts basketball program a success.

The former UMass head coach and his one-time player and assistant talk every week. Calipari wants Minuteman Nation to know that Kellogg is going to get the job done.

"The thing that people don't understand is that he loves the job. It's a dream job for him," said Calipari. "He wants to build it. He wants to raise his family there. It's what he wants."

Calipari keeps a close watch on Amherst these days. Not only does he want to keep his eye on how Kellogg's Minutemen are doing, but his daughter Megan also attends UMass. Calipari's oldest, Erin, has already earned a UMass degree.

So, the former coach says not to worry about the future of the Minutemen.

Calipari was at Blake Arena last week, watching players like future Wildcat Michael Gilchrist of St. Patrick (N.J.) play in the Hoophall Classic. Gilchrist was the most outstanding player in the tournament.

As to the future of his own team, Calipari is confident the Wildcats are on track. And don't forget, Kentucky had five first-round draft picks in this past summer's NBA draft.

"I think we have the most upside of any team in the country," he told me. "We're not deep. We don't have a whole lot of guys. The guys I have are pretty good players.

"The issue is they're content, because I'm not playing a whole lot of people. They're content in the fact that ‘I've got my minutes, I've got my shots. Mine, mine.' They're not committed enough to each other, to winning, to playing how we have to play. That's my issue with them right now."

Calipari is, by all accounts, an acquired taste. Most of us got to know him when he was a young head coach struggling to build a program at Massachusetts. In fact, his first post-hiring banquet speech was in Pittsfield at a St. Joseph's basketball dinner. That's where he got to know Crusaders coach Paul Procopio, striking up a friendship that exists to this day.

I know coaches who aren't fans and some who think the world of Calipari. There might not be a more polarizing figure in college basketball.

And Calipari had an opportunity to polarize Kentucky basketball fans when he reportedly said, after five players were chosen in the first round, that it was the best moment in the history of Kentucky basketball.

An ESPN.com college basketball blogger wrote: "Early in the night, he told an ESPN reporter that this was ‘the biggest night in the history of Kentucky basketball.' There are seven national championships hanging from Rupp Arena that might disagree with Coach Cal on that point."

He was blasted from Lexington to Elizabethtown to Paducah. How dare he describe that as bigger than the championships represented by the banners.

"That moment, if it's not the biggest, it's one of the biggest and I'll stick to that statement. I won't change it," he said. "The reason is we're a players-first program. We didn't win a national title. We had a bad shooting night. It can happen to anybody. What happened for our players, five of them, ended up reaching their dreams and goals and that's what we should be about."

It's also because the kids Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo and the like are recruiting, don't really care about 10 or 20 years ago. Calipari said kids he's recruiting remember three years ago. They don't even know that Calipari took UMass to a Final Four in 1996.

"When I talk about Massachusetts, they have no idea what I'm talking about. Their families do, but they don't," he said. "I have families that say when I walk in that it was [their] favorite team of all time. That was a great team."