Nearly four years ago, John Calipari was watching from the sideline, unable to do anything but stare as his Memphis players missed free throw after free throw in the NCAA championship basketball game.
Up by nine with less than 2½ minutes to play, the Tigers simply needed to hit a free throw or two down the stretch to seal Calipari’s first national title.
Instead, Memphis missed 4 of 5 in the final 1:15 and couldn’t hold on to that lead.
The coach standing meters down the floor that benefitted from the bevy of blown free throws?
Kansas coach Bill Self.
Tonight, Calipari and Self will once again coach each other in the national championship game.
Of all the story lines – NCAA men’s basketball’s two top two programs for wins, Kentucky’s all-star lineup, Kansas’ rise from low expectations to finalist – the one that will be mentioned time and again tonight on the CBS broadcast will be of the rematch between Calipari and Self.
The two coaches couldn’t come off more differently.
Calipari is the coach everyone wants to hate, the man who has taken advantage of the one-and-done rule in college basketball and used it to get to the past two Final Fours.
Self is the coach who is hard to dislike, his awww-shucks persona winning over fans near and far.
Both have gotten their teams to this point in different ways.
Kentucky is the odds-on favorite, led by the national player of the year (freshman Anthony Davis), two other freshmen, two sophomores and a senior.
Kansas is the underdog, the team that has battled from behind throughout much of this NCAA tournament, a squad guided by juniors and seniors.
Yet, despite claiming to having not watched the game since that fateful April night nearly a half decade ago, it would be hard for Calipari to not re-live that night this week alone.
He spent much of Sunday’s news conference answering questions about the ’08 title game and he has answered questions about it throughout the week in New Orleans.
Self, meanwhile, fielded only one question about that game in the Sunday media soiree.
“I’ll tell you, I enjoyed coaching in the game and had a ball,” Calipari said, finally caving to the questions. “It’s just that everything that could have went wrong went wrong and everything they had to do right they did. Stars and the moon lined up. All of a sudden we went to overtime.”
And now 16 years after first guiding a team to the Final Four (Massachusetts) and four years after driving his first team to a NCAA title game (Memphis), Calipari will have a chance to finally add the ultimate trophy to his display case.
And once again, Self stands in the way.
If Kentucky loses, a long-shot if you’ve been watching the sport this season, don’t expect Calipari to be saddened for himself, however.
“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 had fond memories and really respected Bill.”
Calipari won’t have to worry about that this time.
This year, he’ll complete the task, coaching a team to the title. Kentucky is too good, too talented to lose now.