By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
A relentless recruiter — undoubtedly the best in the one-and-done era of college basketball.
Five consecutive top-ranked classes have solidified the perception of UK head coach John Calipari.
His coaching style, however, has often been described as “roll the balls on the floor and let ’em play.” Calipari is never mentioned among the top bench coaches in the country.
Calipari’s coaching acumen was tested Saturday against lowly LSU, as the Cats avoided a potentially catastrophic loss by holding off the Tigers, 75-70.
Although he made crucial decisions in the final minute to help secure the victory, the most applauded move was intentionally fouling the Tigers while nursing a three-point lead in the final seconds.
This debate has raged through the college basketball community in recent weeks. On Saturday, No. 3 Syracuse lost at Villanova when it allowed a late 3-pointer to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Why would you foul when up three? Why wouldn’t you?
Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn determined that a team has a 96 percent chance of winning when fouling, as he analyzed this very situation statistically in 2010.
Too many things have to happen just perfectly to lose in that fashion. The foul shooter first has to drain the first shot, then purposely miss the second — which isn’t always easy to do, especially in such a high-pressure situation.
The shooting team would have to somehow garner a rebound and get off a shot before time expires, just to earn overtime.
So with the Cats clinging to a 73-70 lead with 3.1 seconds to go, Calipari instructed the Cats to foul LSU before the Tigers were able to get a shot off.
“I’m not one to usually do it, but the way that game was playing, he would have made that three,” Calipari said. “There ain’t no question he would have banked it and that three would have gone in. So that’s why I decided to do that.”
A couple of dribbles past half-court, LSU’s sophomore guard Anthony Hickey was fouled by UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin.
“He (Calipari) said to make sure they aren’t shooting when you foul,” Goodwin said about the final instructions before the play. “That’s pretty much common sense. I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be able to get a shot off, so as he took three dribbles I was going to foul him before he could gather himself to get up a shot.”
Hickey, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 2011 and a career 56 percent foul shooter, was charged with the difficult task of hitting the first free throw and perfectly missing the second to create an offensive rebounding opportunity for the Tigers.
He clanked the front-end of the 1-and-1, however, and the Cats salted the game away with a pair of Alex Poythress foul shots.
Other strategies employed by Calipari late in the game also stood out.
With the lead trimmed to two at 70-68 at the :49 mark, Calipari went without Goodwin on the floor for arguably the most important offensive possession of the game.
“I don’t even remember,” Calipari said. “I didn’t want him getting fouled, so I just put the better free-throw shooters on the court.”
After graduate student guard Julius Mays hit a free throw to push the lead to three with 30 seconds left, Calipari inserted junior guard Jarrod Polson for sophomore Ryan Harrow for defensive purposes.
“Just size,” Calipari said. “And because it worked.”
With just a one point 71-70 lead and 3.9 seconds to go, Calipari kept Nerlens Noel on the bench (or did he?) when he knew LSU was going to intentionally foul.
Noel wasn’t in the lineup, but came precariously close to being a sixth person on the floor before being pulled back to the bench by assistant coach John Robic.
Robic saved the Cats a technical foul, which would have likely cost them the victory, but may have yanked Noel a bit too fervently.
“He almost ended my career right there,” Noel said, jokingly, after the game.
Calipari’s strategy coupled with solid execution led to the narrow win for the Cats — a win that at least on paper shouldn’t have been so tight.
The Tigers came into Rupp with a 1-4 conference record, including a 22-point home drubbing at the hands of the sole elite team in the SEC, the Florida Gators.
“We should be gapping the game, but that’s who we are and that means I’ve got to come up with — foul this guy before he shoots a three, stuff I don’t like to do,” Calipari said. “Oh, Cal, that was really smart. You fouled.
“Whatever you do — if you win you’re a genius, if you lose you’re a goofball.”