Kentucky basketball fueled by criticism

Kentucky coach John Calipari questions a call in

Kentucky coach John Calipari questions a call in the first half against Wisconsin in the NCAA semifinals at AT&T Stadium on April 5, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. (Credit: MCT)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- John Calipari is far from the first coach to play the old "us against the world" card. But it's far more believable coming from a man who not only is a lightning rod for criticism but also is highly tuned in to it. "Rabbit ears," as the old saying goes.

It's understandable.

Until you've lived in the fishbowl known as Kentucky basketball, it's hard to comprehend the high-intensity scrutiny the team faces. Add Calipari's baggage and the debate over his "one-and-done" program, and it's fuel for the media fire.

So when Kentucky put together yet another late comeback to beat Wisconsin, the coach had it both ways, crediting his critics for providing the necessary motivation and railing at them for their egregious misjudgment of his team.

"Late in the game, they have an unbelievable will to win, and part of that has come from how they have been treated all season," Calipari said in the postgame news conference Saturday.

His voice rising to a shout, Calipari ranted, "They have been ridiculed, criticized.

"There's constructive criticism, and there's destructive criticism. They got that kind [destructive], questioning their attitudes. Are they good people? Are they selfish? I mean, they were absolutely mauled. I think it made them stronger, and it made them come together."

Calipari said he didn't agree they were an eight seed, but that's where the selection committee slotted a 10-loss team.

"I told them the one thing about this tournament, after the first game, even if you're highly seeded, every game is hard. So I said we're going to have one extra hard game. I lied a little bit to them. I didn't tell them it was going to be Wichita, Louisville, Michigan, Wisconsin, but we had Kansas State, a terrific basketball team. So we had one more than some of those other teams had."

To review, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan all were in the Final Four the previous season and all were ranked in the top seven spots of the AP poll. And Wichita State was undefeated until it met unranked Kentucky in the third round.

So even though the Wildcats were No. 1 in the preseason poll based on their recruiting class, reaching the championship game through that minefield is a stunning achievement. Calipari rightfully gushed about the development of that class, noting after the win over the Badgers, "We played seven freshmen, folks. We played seven freshmen. They're all performing in that stage, under those lights, which is an amazing story."

Aaron Harrison, who made huge three-pointers in the final minute of Kentucky's three wins before meeting Connecticut, and twin brother Andrew bore the brunt of much of the criticism. "Yeah, it motivated us a little bit," Aaron said. "We knew we were a talented team. We were just missing something.

"We looked to Coach for it. All the criticism we got throughout the year, Coach was mad about it, and I think that had a big part in us coming this far. We've kind of fed off the criticism and scrutiny."

Andrew said the players appreciate Calipari's support off the court and the fact he's willing to "go after" Kentucky's critics. "We've been criticized as individuals and as a team all year," Andrew Harrison said. "It's an us-against-the-world mentality. Now, we feel like there's nothing on our shoulders."

Nothing except that big chip that still was daring Connecticut to knock off in Monday night's championship game.

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