It’s time to give university of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari the respect he deserves. That hasn’t always been easy. Calipari, who is criticized for skirting regulations, led two schools, UMass and Memphis, to the Final Four, only to have those appearances voided thanks to NCAA rules violations. But as more fans recognize that college sports have become a multibillion-dollar business, it’s worth acknowledging the coach who has figured out how to hack the NCAA.
NBA rules require that players be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school graduation. Thus, star prospects treat college as a one-season stopover, with some dropping out during their spring semester to prepare for the pros. Rather than bemoan the end of the student-athlete ideal–which, in truth, has been dead for decades–Calipari simply offers top recruits a straight deal: come for a year, compete for a national championship, and go to the NBA. This setup worked for John Wall, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins: all Calipari “one-and-done” alums, all NBA All-Stars.
But that approach works only if the teams win. Conventional wisdom holds that experience prevails in the NCAA Tournament. Calipari turned that line on its head when he led a freshmen-heavy team to the 2012 championship. This year’s tournament, which begins on March 17, offers him another shot. Behind star freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker, Kentucky finished the regular season undefeated and is a favorite to cut down the nets in Indy on April 6. Should that happen, let’s recognize that Coach Cal is the man for this moment–like it or not.
This appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of TIME.