Lurking in virtually every corner of the Superdome this weekend will be lottery picks, some other NBA first-rounders and assorted AP All-Americans.
Everywhere, that is, except the Louisville locker room.
This year’s Final Four features three teams — Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State — all with their fair share of the most gifted players in the country, and a fourth with a coach who has squeezed the most out of the next tier of talent.
Does that make Louisville’s Rick Pitino the best coach, or say something about John Calipari, Bill Self and Thad Matta? Well, those three might tell you something about how tough it is dealing with a bench full of stars.
“A lot of coaches would agree that, at times, coaching teams with a ton of talent is probably more difficult because you’re constantly trying to get the maximum out of them,” said Matta, who has a star in AP All-American first-teamer Jared Sullinger, widely viewed as a top-15 NBA draft pick. “It’s so much easier to get to the top than stay at the top. A lot of times when you have a team that’s loaded, you fight a lot more adversity on the outside than when you’re scraping to get to the top.”
Which brings us to the Kentucky Wildcats, who play Louisville on Saturday in the first semifinal.
By choice, Calipari has developed a program so overflowing with top-level talent that he’s spending more time looking to replace players after a season or two than developing them over four.
Freshman Anthony Davis, another AP All-American, will likely be the top player in the draft should he leave after this season. Classmate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won’t be far behind. Freshman Marquis Teague and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb will also have a chance at the first round if they leave.
So, Calipari must be the most persuasive (some might have another adjective to describe this after those run-ins with the NCAA) recruiter in history, right?
“We don’t do anything outlandish,” he said. “We’re not promising minutes or shots. They’ve just really got to trust that you have their best interest at heart. It’s a players-first program and they learn that, as you sacrifice, we all gain, as individuals and as a team.”
Getting his players to buy into that, and to come to a team where they aren’t guaranteed to be the only star, might be Calipari’s biggest accomplishment as a coach. But once they get there, he insists he’s doing more than simply rolling the ball out on the floor.
Kentucky leads the nation in field goal defense and blocked shots and has a nearly 6-5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Stoked by this combination of less-glamorous numbers, Calipari claims he has the most efficient team in the country.
“What I’m going to try to do is get guys to play as well as they can play,” he said. “Let’s go out and play great. If it’s not good enough, let’s make sure we have more fun than anyone else and we’ll take the results from there.”
While Calipari tries to get the most out of a lot of talent, Pitino has been playing a different game this season. He is the only Final Four coach without an AP first-teamer. In fact, there were no Louisville players on the second or third teams either, or even on the honorable mention list.
According to most lists, not a single one of Pitino’s players would get drafted by the NBA if they left this year. Meanwhile, a raft of injuries and roster adjustments has turned every practice this season into an adventure. Pitino coaxed his sixth Final Four trip out of a team that reminds him in many ways of his first — an undersized, underappreciated group of players at Providence in 1987, headlined by Billy Donovan.
The Cardinals are led by point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng. Yet they went down the stretch in a tight game against Florida on Saturday with Siva gone from the game with five fouls and with a relatively unheralded freshman, Chane Behanan, taking over.
“We may not have as much talent in certain areas as other teams. But there’s young talent and we’re going to develop,” Pitino said. “The great thing about March Madness and college basketball is that, generally speaking, in the pros, 90 percent of the time, the best team is going to win a five- or seven-game series. In college, it’s a one-game stint, maybe somebody shoots great, anything can happen.”
Kansas has this year’s only unanimous all-AP selection in junior Thomas Robinson, who figures to be an NBA lottery pick if he leaves.
He could spend much of the night Saturday matched up against Sullinger, who sat out with back spasms when these teams met in December and Kansas won 78-67.
“He’s one of those kids that, even when he doesn’t play his best, he still gets numbers,” Self said of Robinson. “Some kids, that happens, and they get eight points, four rebounds. He doesn’t play well and he ends up with 15 and 11. It’s such a bonus when you can pencil that in for the most part.”
Players like that must make coaching easy. Calipari recognizes there are plenty of them — on all four teams at this year’s Final Four. Coaches coach, he said. Players win.
“Everyone’s talented,” Calipari said. “Yes, we have good players. So does everyone else. You think they just have a system and that’s why they’re winning? They do it because they’ve got basketball players.”
Photo: Jared Sullinger