For Calipari, Tonight is a Self Assessment

“Kansas has made only two threes on the night. They need to make one here to extend the game. Collins driving, almost lost the handle. Chalmers for the tie! GOT IT WITH TWO SECONDS!” – Jim Nantz

John Calipari and Bill Self matching up against each other in the National Championship game is a story that has been told before. Four years ago, in San Antonio, the two coaches went head-to-head in one of the most thrilling Championship games in recent memory. Calipari’s squad, the Memphis Tigers, held a nine point lead with 2:12 left in regulation, only to have shoddy free throw shooting fuel a furious comeback by the Jayhawks, who tied the game when Mario Chalmers sunk a three pointer with two seconds left.

Now at a different school, Calipari is still looking for that elusive National Championship. He led UMASS to a Final Four appearance in 1996, and came seconds away from a championship in 2008. Ever since he arrived at Kentucky in 2009, he has led basketball’s most storied school to the Elite Eight, Final Four and the National Championship, taking a step further every year. With one of the most athletically gifted teams in college history, this is his make or break year.

Over his career, he has coached Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Chris Douglas-Roberts, DeMarcus Cousins, all NBA Lottery Picks. He is arguably the greatest recruiter in college sports, but he is missing the crown jewel – the National Championship. In this, his fourth trip to the Final Four, he has Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb leading the way, which has been gone coast to coast as a favorite to win the championship. For all of his accolades, Calipari still needs verification. He still needs that championship.

There’s more to it than just the championships. Calipari’s first two trips to the Final Four, with UMASS and with Memphis, were both vacated. His 1996 season was vacated on the premise that Marcus Camby accepted money from sports agents, and the 2008 season because Derrick Rose used a ringer to take his SATs. If Calipari can win tonight, and have it survive the scrutiny that every Calipari coached team has suffered from, it can perhaps erase those past issues.

Still, there is Bill Self, the only obstacle left in Calipari’s path. Self, who overcame the “can he win it all” questions by defeating Calipari in 2008, after a string of disappointing tournament finishes for the Jayhawks. It goes further than that. Calipari’s shady history of having seasons vacated are the polar opposite of the Kansas coach, who has a mostly clean record. In 2009, while in pursuit of John Wall, Self accidentally talked to Wall at the end of a high school game. That was the most trouble that Self has gotten into, and the NCAA determined that did not constitute a rules violation. Self’s program has faced probation, but never any punishment. It doesn’t even come close to the controversy that Calipari’s career has faced.

All these story lines collide tonight in New Orleans, a city that has produced a fine amount of Championship game memories. It can be argued that tonight’s game features the two most talented teams that a National Championship game has seen. Two of the Naismith Player of the Year Award finalists, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, will be the centerpiece of tonight’s game. In a throwback Final Four where the frontcourt is in the forefront, Davis will match-up against seven-footer Jeff Whitey. Upfront, it’s a push. Guard play has been swept aside all tournament long (with the exception of Peyton Siva), and I don’t see it going any differently this evening. However, basketball is still a team game. Given the two backcourts, I like Tyshawn Taylor to lead Kansas’ backcourt.  For that reason, I will pick Kansas to defeat Kentucky in a nip and tuck battle. Expect low scoring,  lots of blocked shots, but a relatively clean game. If Kentucky can force turnovers, obviously they gain a significant advantage. Look for that very early on tonight, and that might be the telling sign.

Final score: Kansas 63 – Kentucky 58

Follow live updates on Twitter @JustinCirillo and check back on Wednesday for an MLB Season Preview.

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