LOUISVILLE, Ky. — UConn coach Jim Calhoun doesn’t claim to have any inside knowledge, but he could see longtime rival John Calipari returning to the NBA at some point.
As a matter of coincidence, the Knicks on Wednesday parted ways with Mike D’Antoni after three-plus years, opening the door to rumor and speculation that Calipari might be a candidate to take over in the Big Apple.
“Can I imagine John going in the NBA or anything else? Yes,” said Calhoun, whose team begins defense of its NCAA championship here Thursday against Iowa State and could meet Kentucky Saturday in a rematch of last year’s national semifinals.
“I think John very simply marches…to his own drummer.”
Shortly after the D’Antoni news broke, Calipari Tweeted that he was not interested in the Knicks job.
“As I’ve said before, I have the greatest job in basketball at any level,” he Tweeted. “Why would I be interested in another job?”
He added: “I love being the coach of the commonwealth’s team. To that #BBN & all the recruits that are coming or want to come, I will be at Kentucky.”
But really, what else is going to say at this point?
Asking a coach about another job is akin to asking a college player during the NCAAs if they’re leaving early for the NBA.
Calipari coached the Nets from 1996-99 before he was fired.
There have been rumors almost annually since then about him returning to the NBA.
But he’s more mature and experienced than he was then, and Calhoun thinks he could return to the NBA.
Calipari is a defensive-minded coach and the Knicks clearly need that. He also prefers an up-tempo offensive style that puts points on the board, a style that would seem to mesh well with the assets the Knicks currently have in Jeremy Lin, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
“You really don’t have to look to find a much better coach, quite frankly,” Calhoun said of Calipari. “I know he has a lot of very good talent. He does a lot with that very good talent.”
Calipari has taken three schools — UMass, Memphis and Kentucky — to the Final Four (with two being vacated) but has never won an NCAA title.
His current team features a slew of future NBA players — including likely overall No. 1 pick Anthony Davis — and Calipari has as good a chance to cut down the nets next month in New Orleans as any coach in the draw.
“My job is just to get my team to play as well as they can play,” Calipari said here. “They’ll take us where we’re going. It’s not going to be me. It’s going to be them.
“As far as this being the best unit [he’s had], I’m going to tell you, in ’96 I had a heck of a team. 2008, a heck of team. Last year’s team, heck of a team. And even two years ago, where we had five first-round draft picks, it was pretty good. And we go 0-for-20 in the Elite Eight game from the 3-point line and get beat.”
Calipari knows this team is loaded, and with Syracuse center Fab Melo now out of the tournament, Kentucky’s chances to win their first title under his leadership may have increased exponentially in the last 24 hours.
Still, he claims he’s not feeling any pressure to win it all.
“All I’m trying to tell my team right now is let’s be our best,” he said. “Let’s play our best and see where it goes. You guys, let’s stay in the moment. Let’s have a ball playing.”
Some might argue that if Calipari finally wins his first title in New Orleans, he may feel he’s ready to move on to the NBA.
But if he does feel that way, of course he’s not going to say it, not with recruits like Nerlens Noel, Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett still undecided.
Regardless of whether Kentucky wins or not, Calhoun, who has won three NCAA titles, said Calipari has nothing left to prove.
“John, at present rate, based upon numbers, is going in the Hall of Fame, assuming he stays in college basketball…
“I don’t think he has to prove anything more in college basketball if he got a very good NBA job, if that’s what he’d want to do. I personally don’t think he has to prove anything.”
Stay tuned…we’ll know more in about three weeks.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.