The Kentucky Widcats earned a much needed win against the No. 16 ranked Mississippi Rebels last evening. The 87-74 road win, was the best win of the season for Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his young Wildcats.
The Wildcats were down 38-37 at the half but responded by building a 17 point lead with under 10 minutes to go in the contest. That is when Calipari showed his Hall of Fame caliber coaching prowess. At the 9:53 mark, Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s stud freshman and probable NBA lottery pick, committed his fourth foul.
Calipari reluctantly substituted Noel, and the Rebels subsequently went on a 4-0 run. Up 73-60, with 8:30 to go, Calipari inserted Noel back into the Wildcats lineup. What proceeded to happen was Noel blocked five shots in the remaining 8 1/2 minutes in the game, which stabilized the Kentucky defense and cinched the victory.
Noel recorded a Kentucky record 12 blocks on the night. For Calipari to see that his team was in need of Noel’s defensive presence and to have the faith and guts to substitute him back in with that much time remaining is what great coaches do.
Historically, Calipari has been known as simply a recruiter that could not coach in big games. From Derrick Rose to Anthony Davis, Calipari has always been able to attract the nation’s top talent. That have never been a question. However, the times when his Memphis Tigers failed to make free throws down the stretch against the Kansas Jayhawks, or when they failed to foul Mario Chalmers in the closing seconds (which cost him the 2008 national championship game) have haunted him.
However, after winning last year’s national championship, Calipari put all the questions about him winning the big game to rest and since most of these players besides Noel are not NBA-ready, they really have a chance to grow under Calipari. Likewise, Calipari has a unique opportunity to coach them this year and beyond, which has not been the norm for his program.
Trust was built last night because of his unconventional in-game decision. It was risky, it was bold, and it was the right move. Most coaches would have sat Noel until the four minute mark; not Calipari. He coached to win and needed his best player on the court to do so. That is what makes Calipari elite. He is not afraid to be a leader and make tough decisions.
That decision will give Noel and the entire Wildcats team confidence that they can play under pressure, in foul trouble, against a quality opponent on the road and win. How far can they go? That is up to the confidence and improvement that Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff can instill in the his Wildcats.
It is safe to say that Calipari will have his team ready for some big games in the upcoming weeks to solidify their NCAA Tournament resume and make a run in come March. Do not be surprised if you see the Wildcats making a Sweet 16 or even an Elite 8 run come March because of the talent and elite coaching they have.
Follow Bert DeSalvo on Twitter @CoachDeSalvo