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Calipari eyes elusive national championship

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4629405.jpegAs head coach John Calipari prepares for a historic third Final Four, his first with Kentucky, he has his blinders on and is only looking forward.

If there is one thing he's learned from his two previous Final Four appearances with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, and even last year's knockout in the Elite Eight, it's to enjoy the moment, because you never know when -- or if -- you'll ever be back.

"At this point I have no rearview mirror," Calipari said in an exclusive interview Tuesday. "If you're driving near me, just know I'm not looking in the rearview mirror. Everything is looking out the front window, so don't come near me if I'm driving because I can't see behind me and I'm not looking back right now. Everything I'm doing is just looking forward."

That was Calipari's response when asked if this has been one of his most rewarding teams in his 19-year college coaching career.

Calipari wasn't sure, but he was certain this has been one of his most developed and surprising teams. From bidding farewell to five first-round draft picks -- Calipari was quick to point out that he also lost former starters Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson -- losing star recruit Enes Kanter and dropping six games by five points or less midway through the season, it's been an unexpected run to the program's first Final Four since 1998.

"When we became the fourth four seed -- not the four seed; we were the last four seed, the 16th team -- that's when I said this is going to be hard because we were eventually, if we won, having to play the best team in the country in Ohio State," Calipari said. "If you're lucky, then you're playing the fifth-best team in the country in North Carolina. It's what we had to do and we kind of got by it."

Calipari is just the second coach in college basketball history to reach three Final Fours with three different teams, joining former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino in elite company. He joined history during a year in which his critics said he couldn't survive with a six-man rotation, couldn't recover from losing an entire team to the NBA and couldn't win without Kanter.

It has to feel sweet, doesn't it? Calipari said his return to the Final Four offers no vindication.

"I haven't listened to what anybody says," Calipari said. "You're saying that to me and I'd say if I knew all that, I would say, 'Yeah this is sweet,' but I didn't. I'm focused on the team and trying to get guys better. The talking heads say what they want. Somebody told me one of the (media) guys said I'm the most overrated coach in the country or in the tournament. My comment was, 'Geez, there's got to be one or two down there with me. I can't be the only guy.' You just take it with a grain of salt. You just smile and move on and do your job and make sure your team is prepared to do its best."

Although he said he knew just how hard it was to make a Final Four when he was 37 years old with UMass as he knows now, he does have an appreciation for how special it is to make it to a place that few coaches ever experience.

"This is a humbling profession," Calipari said on a Final Four teleconference Monday. "It's very, very hard. It can be very rewarding, but it also could be one of those things that you get slapped in the mouth when you really think:  I got this figured out. ... I'll tell you, what you feel is blessed and lucky and fortunate because there are so many coaches in our profession who are as good as they get that have never been to a Final Four, but they're unbelievable coaches. Sometimes it's luck, other times it's the situation they're in."

The key ingredient in his runs, Calipari said in his "we just roll the balls out there" tone, is having "really good players."

"I think what I've learned at an early age is just to continue to make this about these kids, to continue to try to make kids better, and then have them buy into team, whether it's team defense or being unselfish," Calipari said. "It still comes back to: How do I get individual players better?  Not just one or two guys, but the entire team. How does each individual improve?  How do they feel unleashed? Make it more about them or me or style of play or any of that. That's what I try to do."

It may be a players-first program, as Calipari has said throughout his two years at UK, and Calipari very well may want his legacy to revolve around what his players do after college.

"I hope people look and say, 'Boy, he does a good job with his kids and they get better and they play and they go on to good careers, whether it is basketball or business or education, whatever it is," Calipari said after the Elite Eight win over North Carolina. "He prepares them for life after basketball. I hope that would be what it is."

But you can bet the head coach wants a national championship, too. He says the elusive title on his resume doesn't eat at him, but if he wants to join the current coaching icons like Mike Kryzewski, Roy Williams and even Jim Calhoun -- as if he already hasn't with three Final Fours -- he'd do himself a favor to win this week in Houston.

"I'm at Kentucky," Calipari said, referring to the enormity of the program and the state's appetite (or demand) to win national titles. "Obviously if you got this far every one of us coaches that are in that Final Four want to win it. But it won't be the end all for me. The sun's going to come up on Tuesday."

Would it change his legacy though? Would it enhance it? Maybe so, not that Calipari loses sleep over it at night.

"Would it change what my players think of me? I don't believe so," Calipari said. "Would it change what my family and friends think of me? I don't think so. Would it change what maybe some of the public think of me? For some it won't matter. I could win 10 national titles and it won't matter. Others probably would. But at the end of the day, I want this to be about these kids and what they've done and how far they've come." 

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