Kentucky will head into the NCAA tournament undefeated after beating the second-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks in an SEC tournament final that wasn’t close. Kentucky is the undeniable favorite to win it all this year, and even if they don’t, nobody would dispute that on any given day, they could beat anyone. Kentucky’s last championship win came in 2012, and their last appearance was in a 2014 loss to U-Conn. Since bringing in his first recruiting class, Coach John Calipari has managed to reach the NCAA tournament every year minus 2013, a year which saw star freshman Nerlens Noel struggle with injuries. Kentucky has always been known as a “basketball school” but since taking the reins, Calipari has converted the program from occasional wave-maker to a full-blown dynasty.
When asked to think about dynasties in sports, people might think of the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, or the New England Patriots of the 2000s. Dynastic teams usually feature franchise-defining players, a-la Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, etc. In college sports, however, the rules are a bit different. Players can still embody dynasties, for example the “Tebow era” here at UF. Tebow was certainly the face of the UF football dynasty of the late 2000s, but that dynasty was obviously short-lived compared to professional sport dynasties.
However, just because the face of the dynasty is gone doesn’t mean the dynasty can’t continue. That’s because in college sports, dynasties are often embodied not by players, but by coaches. The John Wooden dynasty at UCLA. The Geno Auriemma dynasty at U-Conn. The Nick Saban dynasty at Alabama. Did great players come out of these programs? Sure. But their continued success and ascent to the level of dynasty can often be traced to coaches.
That brings me back to Kentucky. Calipari has his team on the cusp of reaching that level, and he’s doing it in a new way. Unlike Wooden, Calipari doesn’t have a player that will play at least three years like Kareem Abdul Jabar (although admittedly, Wooden was still far more impressive). Unlike Auriemma, Calipari doesn’t have a number one recruit who will stay all four years and win two championships. Unlike Saban, Calipari can’t recruit someone to “quarterback” his teams for several years, because he knows as soon as people recognize how good a player is, that player will bolt for the NBA.
Despite the fact that he has to win with new talent every year and recruit that talent constantly in order to keep the process going, Coach Cal manages to do so. This year in particular serves as the culmination of just how good he’s been and of just how good Kentucky has become under him. If they manage to take the tournament—a big if indeed—they’ll be the first team since the 1975-76 Bob Knight led Indiana Hoosiers to finish a season with a perfect record.
At that point, it’ll be safe to say that the John Cailpari dynasty at Kentucky has begun. And even if not, as long as Calipari can continue to win like he has thus far, there will undoubtedly be many more championship opportunities in the future.