SYRACUSE, N.Y. - John Calipari keeps the "for sale" signs angry Memphis fans once staked in his yard in his garage. He has them as reminders that, even when times are good, there were plenty of years when fans wanted him gone.
Calipari bristled when it was suggested he was the master of the quick fix, a coach able to turn around programs with a few prized recruits, some slick strategy, and then kick back and enjoy Final Four runs.
He rattled off his resumé: Calipari needed 4 years at Massachusetts to make the NCAA Tournament; three at Memphis and then three more to get out of the second round; and his NBA career lasted all of two-plus seasons with the New Jersey Nets.
He has always needed time to win games and win over fickle fans.
Just not this year. Not at Kentucky.
Calipari has built Kentucky into a championship program again, not a mere solid one that lagged in prestige and Final Four counts in the final years of the Tubby Smith era and then under Billy Gillispie. Calipari has the Wildcats (35-2) within one win of their first Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998.
"We know that we're part of history," forward Patrick Patterson said. "We're part of a team that's getting Kentucky back to the true place that the Kentucky program was in the past and should be from now on."
Patterson is a rare contributing holdover from Gillispie's rocky tenure. Calipari hit the recruiting trail hard and landed DeMarcus Cousins as his first high-profile recruit last April. John Wall soon found his way to Lexington. In only one season, Calipari built a roster of players who know nothing but big Southeastern Conference wins and NCAA Tournament romps.
The Wildcats may be on the brink of reclaiming their position as the king of college basketball, but West Virginia (30-6) wants to stop the coronation.
In what has been a topsy-turvy tournament, the East Regional has proved the exception.
Top-seeded Kentucky and No. 2 West Virginia have escaped the wild upsets that have knocked out two other No. 1 seeds and a few other Final Four favorites. They play today, with the winner heading to Indianapolis.
Mountaineers star Da'Sean Butler had his right hand and wrist wrapped in ice after yesterday's practice as a precaution. He clutched the hand in pain after a hard fall in West Virginia's 69-56 win over Washington on Thursday night.
Butler, the team's leading scorer, said the injury won't affect his play.
"I'm taking care of certain things before it gets to a certain level where I can't do anything with it," he said.
The Big East Tournament champions are already without starting point guard Darryl Bryant after he broke his right foot in practice Tuesday. But just like the Wildcats, Butler and the Mountaineers are rolling. They've won nine straight games and have held six consecutive teams below 60 points.
They looked a bit out of rhythm running their half-court offense without Bryant, however, and played one of the ugliest first halves of the tournament Thursday night.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins returned to his alma mater with a Final Four in mind. He wants that second trip - he led Cincinnati to the Final Four in 1992 - even if it comes at the expense of his good friend, Calipari. They long ago forged a tight friendship that has spanned every coaching stop. When Huggins had his heart attack, Calipari was one of the first to visit him in the hospital. Calipari's nephew was in the ambulance that transported Huggins.
"He said, 'Coach Huggins, you're going to be all right. I'm John Calipari's nephew,' '' Calipari recalled. "And [Huggins] went, 'Oh my goodness, I'm not going to make it.' ''
Huggins cracked that Calipari's nephew told him, "Coach, don't worry. I'm not going to let you die until Cal beats you at least once."
Calipari has beaten Huggins before, and a win tonight would be the sweetest victory. Calipari is still trying to get to a Final Four that counts - trips with Memphis and Massachusetts have been vacated by the NCAA.
Calipari has downplayed expectations and loves to point out that Kentucky is one of the most inexperienced teams left in the field. The Wildcats start three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, but any tournament jitters have long vanished. *