Howland's attention to detail will prevail over Calipari's cheerleading approach.
April 5, 2008
SAN ANTONIO -- One coach runs distinct, detailed, plotted plays.
The other coach just runs.
One coach screams at his players to place themselves in the exact formation they practiced the night before in a hotel ballroom in front of two potted plants and a giggling front-desk clerk.
The other coach just screams.
One coach controls and teaches by calling repeated timeouts, frequently using his entire allotment long before the end of the game.
The other coach suffered his only loss this year when his frantic team missed a last-second shot after he refused to call his final timeout.
If Ben Howland is John Wooden, then John Calipari is Abe Saperstein.
If Howland is cast directly from "Hoosiers," then Calipari comes from "White Man Can't Jump."
When looking for the difference in today's national semifinal between UCLA and Memphis, look no further than the end of the bench.
Howland will be the one coaching.
Calipari will be the one cheering.
That's perhaps an oversimplification, but at the center of each team is a leader whose heart is in a very different place.
Howland is a concocter of plays.
Calipari is a collector of players.
I'm picking a now-healthy UCLA to defeat Memphis today because, all things being equal, the play always beats the players.
It happened two years ago, in a regional final in Oakland, when Howland coached Calipari into the bay, 50-45.
That Memphis team had averaged 82 points in three tournament victories and had scored 88 points against UCLA earlier in the season.
But in the rematch, the Tigers shot 32% and made 15 two-point baskets.
Howland adjusted, and Calipari didn't. Howland's players got better, and Calipari's didn't.
Howland coached a bunch of overachievers to the Final Four. Calipari's underachievers went home, again.
It's not that Calipari isn't a good basketball coach.
He won more games in his first 15 seasons than anybody but Roy Williams.
This year, he and Howland became only the second and third coaches in college history to have three consecutive 30-win seasons.
This will be his second trip to the Final Four despite coaching at only the University of Massachusetts and Memphis. But his first Final Four appearance was stripped because his center, Marcus Camby, was being paid by an agent at the time.
In other big games in his career, his great athletes were simply outschemed and outplayed.
Calipari is an accomplished coach during all but the 40 minutes of a game.
Which is when Howland is at his best.
"Ben Howland is a great coach, and if you really think he outcoached me two years ago, fine, go ahead and say that," Calipari said Friday. "I guess that means he has to outcoach me again on Saturday, right? That's fine. We'll see."
When I confronted Calipari with the perceptions of his coaching, he was polite and accommodating. He's heard the rips before. As the new king in Memphis, he is crying all the way to the bank.
"You know, what is coaching?" he said. "Coach is a lot of different things. Just because I don't call 12 timeouts, that means I'm not coaching? I don't like to call timeouts, does that make me bad?"
He doesn't call timeouts, he doesn't even call plays, instead installing a system in which his players use different motions.
When you see him shouting on the sideline, it will be as a cheerleader, not a caretaker. He will be shouting for players to run hard, to shoot smarter, to get tougher.
"He yells about effort," guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "But he doesn't expect me to miss a shot, so if I miss a shot, it's, 'What kind of shot is that?' "
While the lack of structure allows Memphis to run up big scores, it also prevents the Tigers from making the adjustment to a slower pace.
They claim their experience, plus the addition of freshman guard Derrick Rose, makes them a more complete team than two years ago.
"We've grown . . . we can play the half-court game as well as the full-court game," Douglas-Roberts said. "Either way, we're pretty good."
Yet, this season in games in which they have scored 62 points or less, they are 2-1. And one of those wins came against USC in overtime.
So, at a slow pace, they really haven't been tested much or succeeded much.
Guess how Ben Howland is going to play? And guess who will be the real one tested?
Yep, Calipari, easily noticeable on the sidelines, he'll be jumping while Howland stalks, cheering while Howland calculates.
Howland's players will be the ones worrying about the little things.
"It's all about attention to detail," UCLA's Lorenzo Mata-Real said. "Coach Howland has such attention to detail, every little play, every little part of every little play, that we're able to overcome anything."
Calipari's players will be more focused on the big thing.
"He lets us go," Douglas-Roberts said. "It's fun."
It should be fun, indeed. A rich and relentless game in which the Bruins are favored by one.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.