It’s easy to paint John Calipari as a con artist. He’s slick and perceived as shady, a reputation earned through great recruiting. The Kentucky coach runs an NBA farm team on a college campus.
When he was losing with the best freshmen, everyone loved it. But now that’s he’s winning with those freshmen, he’s due credit, even if most of us hate it.
Calipari ran one heck of a con. He watched the Wildcats sink to a point of low expectations — the preseason No. 1 team in the nation slipped to a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament — before flipping the proverbial switch.
He’s viewed by most as the villain in this Final Four, but by now we all can agree he would be a good guy to host a coaching clinic.
“I dislike Calipari so much, but he’s done a great job with these guys,” handicapper Bruce Marshall of The Gold Sheet said. “Very sad to say, I think Kentucky is kind of the team to beat now.”
An argument to that statement will come from the Florida side, but it all will be settled soon at a football stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Wildcats navigated a treacherous road to the Final Four by taking down an undefeated top seed, Wichita State, the defending national champion, Louisville, and last year’s national runner-up, Michigan. That string of events is obviously no fluke.
A few weeks ago, Kentucky faced 40-1 odds to win the national title. Now a case can be made that Calipari is coaching the team to beat.
On to Wisconsin, which is led by a gritty, throwback coach, Bo Ryan, and a 7-foot junior, Frank Kaminsky, who can shoot the 3-pointer but is a small blip on the radar of NBA scouts. The Badgers are 1½-point underdogs to the Wildcats on Saturday.
“I’m very reluctantly on the Kentucky side,” Marshall said. “In February, I was ready to write that team off. But Calipari has got those kids really working hard, and they decided to play together.”
The Badgers play at a faster pace than Ryan’s past teams, but do they dare run with the Wildcats? And can they rebound with freshman forward Julius Randle and a Kentucky team that is bigger and more athletic at almost every position on the floor?
It’s a fascinating matchup that becomes purely a matter of opinion at this point. No computer projection can spit out the likely winner because the Wildcats, as Marshall said, are a “different team” than they were from November through February. The season-long stats lie.
Calipari found the switch and flipped it. Even without injured 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, an argument can be made that Kentucky is again the team to beat.
“This is the team that came into the season with a rating only one point below Louisville and a half-point higher than Florida,” said Micah Roberts, an analyst for The Linemakers on SportingNews.com and a former sports book director. “That rating prior to the season was based entirely on the Wildcats’ talent, and while they struggled quite often to live up to that rating during the regular season, they have come full circle. So they are who we thought they were, but it just took more time to realize it.
“We just watched Kentucky eliminate three straight Final Four participants from last season, and in each instance they not only showed their athletic skill set that made them rated so high, but they also showed other intangibles such as being clutch, making critical free throws and being the more confident team.”
Roberts argued a case that the Kentucky line against Wisconsin should be higher. Still, South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said his book is seeing early sharp action on the ’dog.
“The junk is on Kentucky,” Vaccaro said, “but the straight bets from the phones are on Wisconsin.”
It should be easier to pick a winner in the Connecticut-Florida semifinal. The Gators, 6½-point favorites, have gone mostly untested while winning each of their four tournament games by double digits. But it’s not going to be another blowout for Florida, which has become too dependent upon senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin for scoring.
The Huskies are riding their senior guard, Shabazz Napier, who has been the best player in the tournament while averaging 23.3 points in four games. I expect the Gators to defend and rebound a little better, and win by six points or fewer.
“UConn has sure impressed me. Napier is on a different plateau than anybody else in this tournament. He’s carrying the team on his back,” Marshall said. “Florida doesn’t look unbeatable to me.”
I’m waffling on the other game. It’s easy to root for Wisconsin to beat Calipari, this era’s version of Jerry Tarkanian, a villain in the eyes of the NCAA when he led UNLV to Final Fours in 1990 and 1991.
But there are differences. The nation embraced those runs by the Rebels, Randle is not Larry Johnson, and, of course, Tarkanian was far more likable than Calipari.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.