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April 6, 2014

Calipari setting NCAA Tournament legacy

ARLINGTON, Texas -- John Calipari is always coaching.

But junior guard Sam Malone sees a different Calipari when March rolls around. The man whose mind constantly runs on multiple tracks becomes singularly focused when his teams are in single-elimination situations.

"You can tell when it's tournament time," Malone said. "He steps up his coaching. He's just focused and on point. He doesn't care about anything else except his team winning."

Calipari's done plenty of that in March. If Kentucky wins Monday, he will have the highest NCAA tournament winning percentage of any active coach (76.1 percent, passing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (75.9 percent). That does not include his vacated wins from Massachusetts and Memphis (if those are counted, his career winning percentage in the tournament would be 77.2 percent should he win Monday).

It would also finish off a nine-year run that could include two championships, one runner-up (later vacated), one Final Four, three Elite Eights, a Sweet 16 and an NIT appearance.

"It's obviously remarkable," Malone said.

Calipari downplayed how a second title would impact his legacy when asked Sunday.

"I could care less," he said.

He has admitted before that winning and money drove him as a younger coach. That's changed, he said, as he grew older, accomplished more and found himself at a job with a platform large enough to serve a purpose beyond basketball.

"I'm making sure it's about these young men up here," Calipari said.

His players say that's genuine.

"I really do feel like he cares more about his players than his own accomplishments," senior guard Jarrod Polson said. "Playing for a guy like that, it makes you want to win it for him."

Although they know Calipari's competitive enough to care about winning a great deal, as well.

"I think that, more than his legacy," Malone said, "it's more just, 'I hate to lose. I don't want anyone to beat me or my team.' I think that's more on his mind than how many titles he's won."

One title is already there on Calipari's resume, with another chance on Monday.

Polson said his ability to take a nearly brand-new team every year and mold it into a contender nearly every season is a "testament to how much guys trust him." Polson remembered this team having to learn the basics of using their pivot foot -- "something you learn in middle school," Polson said -- at the beginning of the year.

While Calipari may not use the most intricate offensive system, Polson said Calipari's simplification is a sign of good coaching. Freshmen can only handle so much, he said, and Calipari creates a system that sets his players up for success.

"My whole thing is, I'm coaching the hand that's dealt," Calipari said.

Often, that leads to more stacked hands. Multiple freshmen said Calipari's history of postseason success was a significant factor in their decision to attend Kentucky, and Malone said it's easier to buy into what Calipari wants "because of his track record."

Calipari has the chance to add another notch in his record on Monday, and regardless of his personal feelings or motivations, the numbers speak for themselves.

"I think he's got it figured out," Malone said. "How to win in March and April."

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