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Fateful final matchup stands in way of Coach Cal's first title

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John Calipari looks to win his first national title on Monday against the school where he got his coaching start. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari looks to win his first national title on Monday against the school where he got his coaching start. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK's journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.

NEW ORLEANS - Should anyone be surprised it's come to this? After all the barriers he's broken through, all the demons he's exorcised, isn't it supposed to end this way?

Four years since losing to Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks in the 2008 national championship game in devastating fashion - an overtime loss after owning a nine-point lead with 2:12 to play - John Calipari will get another shot on Monday at 9:23 p.m. ET to claim his first national championship.

He'll do it against the same man  and same team that beat him four years ago when he was so close, versus the same blueblood program that trails Kentucky by 19 wins for the all-time NCAA lead, and against the same school he got his coaching career started at in 1983 as a glorified volunteer.

How perfect.

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Coach Cal began his college basketball career in 1983 in the final season of Ted Owens' 19-year stint. Owens asked Calipari to join his staff, but it was nothing more than a volunteer position serving food to Kansas' athletic teams and a side job helping Owens run his basketball camp.

"Would you like peas or corn?" Calipari would ask as Kansas student-athletes shuffled through the line.

"Peas," someone would answer.

"Great," Calipari would say, slopping the food on a plate.

He lived with an assistant coach and worked to eat off the very same table he was serving food from. Occasionally he would get steak for himself.

"I never had steak growing up," he said.  

All the while, he was biding his time to get his first big break.

The following year, Owens' run at Kansas ended and the legendary Larry Brown's began. It was in those next two years Calipari fostered a relationship with one of his longtime mentors. He also met his wife, Ellen.

Coach Cal would leave in 1985 for an assistant coaching job at Pittsburgh, but his foundation had been forged at Kansas and his roots forever entrenched in Lawrence, Kan.

"It was a great experience," Calipari said. "I had no worries. Again, I met my wife there. I had great memories of Lawrence."

Just not so fond when he faced the school where it all started.

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Twenty-five years after jumpstarting his career in Kansas, Calipari faced the Jayhawks in his first national championship game in 2008. Calipari was the coach at Memphis; Self was at Kansas.

Calipari was poised to win his first title when, as Calipari explained, "everything that could have went wrong went wrong and everything (Kansas) had to do right they did."

The "stars and the moon lined up," Calipari said, and Memphis squandered a nine-point lead with just a couple minutes remaining. Rose, the nation's best freshman and No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft a couple months later, missed a free throw in the final seconds, and Kansas' Mario Chalmers drilled a 3-point rainbow with 2.7 seconds left to send the game in the overtime.

Kansas won 75-68.

Calipari said they tried to foul in those final seconds to prevent the game-tying 3, but his players missed the opportunity at midcourt. Other than that, Calipari said he doesn't look back at that game.

"That tape was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane," Coach Cal said. "I have never looked at that tape, nor will I."

Self - the guy who replaced Calipari at Kansas - said he watched the tape some 50 or so times in the day after during his workouts, so much so that he could go over a few possessions still in his head.

The loss was disappointing for Calipari, but given whom it was against and where he came from, Coach Cal wasn't devastated.

"Bill and I have known each other for a long time," Calipari said. "I said after they beat us in 2008, if there was any coach or school that was going to beat us in that venue, I would have said let it be Kansas. I have fond memories and really respected Bill."

It was Self's first national championship and Kansas' first since 1988. Now Calipari will try to return the favor against the same program, the same man that denied his bid. It would be the first of his career and UK's first since 1998.

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If you believe in fate, you believe Kentucky will win the national championship.

Even outside of the eerie national championship story lines with Coach Cal, UK appears to be a team of destiny. The Cats have fended off an in-state team in Western Kentucky; conquered a kid at Iowa State that nearly transferred to the program; beat back the one team that stunned them in the regular season; defeated the one team people said was just as athletic as them; and then fended off their archrival in their first Final Four matchup.

Other than the 20-year anniversary with Duke never coming to fruition, does the road get any better than that?

Now, with Kentucky oh so close to its coveted eighth national championship, it must take down one of the few schools that can compare its history and tradition in a matchup of the two winningest programs in college basketball history. It's a battle of the titans.

"That's real cool," senior guard Darius Miller said. "To be able to play in something like this, I feel honored to be a part of something like this. This is two great programs that have been great throughout the year."

The Kentucky fans surely want this one badly.

"These fans are the greatest fans," Calipari said. "They're the most passionate fans. They're into it like you can't believe, as you know. But we're just going to play a basketball game. And then it's over. Whatever happens, we'll deal with the results of it."

That phrase, "just another basketball game," seems so crazy, so ludicrous for a game of this magnitude. But it's one Coach Cal has been preaching - with success - throughout the season and tournament.

If Calipari doesn't win it all, he said it won't bother him or let it define his career. He's long said the only thing he cares about is helping his players realize their dreams, and he's lived up to that reputation throughout his career, taking his teams deep into the NCAA Tournament and sending his players off to better lives in the NBA and the world.

But if there was ever a time for Coach Cal to capture that elusive championship and capture the one thing missing on his sparkling résumé, isn't it now? Doesn't this seem like the time?

"If I do right by these kids, if I make sure it's about players first ... demanding that they understand you have to sacrifice for each other ... they will drag us where we want to go," Calipari said.

To this point, the players have dragged Kentucky to the cusp of the national championship. Now, for Coach Cal's legacy, they want to drag him to his first national title.

"We know he wants to win a championship," freshman guard Marquis Teague said. "Nobody wants to get to this game and lose. We've been talking about it and we want to give him the first championship."

The scenario just seems so ... perfect.

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