The Hero Vs. The Villain Would Be Perfect
In an NCAA Tournament where very little has made any sense, we could end up with the perfect final.
The Hero against The Villain.
Brad Stevens, the Butler coach who is the epitome of basketball purity, against John Calipari, the Kentucky coach who is widely viewed as . . .well, something less than the sport’s Mr. Clean.
Stevens’ story gets more amazing with every game. Here he is at Butler, a tiny private university in . . .where? Exactly. Most people couldn’t tell you.
It is in Indiana, and only 4,600 students are enrolled. There are schools in this tournament with almost that many enrolled in the same class. Schools with 40,000 or 50,000 students.
But here is Stevens, with that young, bespectacled, professorial image of his, peering out from all the anonymity, and making it not just to one Final Four, but to two in a row, even after losing his one NBA-caliber player a year ago.
Hey, it’s a big deal if Kansas or North Carolina or Kentucky make it to one in a row these days. Now here is Butler, going back to back, barely losing to Duke in a pulsating final last year, and now just one more victory away from being in the final again.
None of us know too much about this young man who barely looks old enough to order a postgame beer. But I’ll tell you what we do know now:
He has to be a heckuva coach. How one of the big heavyweight schools hasn’t made a lucrative run at him is beyond me. But here he is, back home in Indiana, ready to head for Houston and another shot at the ultimate prize.
Then there is Calipari, and yes, if you listen closely, you can almost hear the booing and hissing in the background.
They say he cheats. They say he has to, or he wouldn’t keep getting this ridiculous stream of wonderfully gifted athletes to follow him wherever he goes. Nobody can recruit THAT well, right?
Well, while they’re badmouthing him behind his back, maybe it is also time to admit he’s done an incredible job this year, overflowing talent or not.
A year ago, he sent an unprecedented five players to the NBA, where they were all first round draft choices. That’s right, five No. 1s. That meant he had to start from scratch this season, losing five of the best athletes in the country.
Most coaches would have shrugged their shoulders, rolled up their sleeves and said, “OK. So we have to rebuild this year.”
Calipari rebuilt, all right. He rebuilt this team loaded with freshmen all the way to the Final Four, which happens to be farther than last year’s team could get.
He, too, obviously can coach basketball a bit. Does he bend the rules to do it? Let’s just say that anyone who recruits as well as he does has to be suspicious. And his questionable reputation certainly has followed him to Kentucky.
But you can’t take away what he’s done with this group, just as you can’t deny that Butler’s Stevens now has one of the more remarkable resumes in the country.
Virginia Commonwealth is a great story, too. And you have to love the coach’s name . . .Smart? Yeah, I’d say this guy Shaka is plenty smart. He has critics all over the country eating their words today.
And if I had to pick anyone at this point — and why would I, since, like most of you, I have no teams left in my bracket? — I think UConn and Kemba Walker are now the favorites.
But we all know what favorites have done so far.
Nah, forget that. Give me Butler and Kentucky. Stevens vs. Calipari. The Hero versus The Villain.
As tournament scripts go, you just can’t get much better than that.
— STEVE BISHEFF