The last time we watched John Calipari and Big Blue Nation celebrate an NCAA Tournament victory was on March 29, 2019 when the ‘Cats knocked off Houston to advance to the Elite Eight.
That was 1,384 days ago.
Sure, the tourney was canceled in 2020. However, Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats finished a putrid 9-16 in 2020-21 and then were upset in the first round a year ago by Saint Peter’s.
This was supposed to be the year that Calipari redeemed himself. He used NIL to bring National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe back to Lexington. He brought in a potential lottery pick in Cason Wallace and another heralded freshman in Chris Livingston (No. 12 on 247Sports). Cal finally had proven shooters with CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves, and brought back veterans Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin and Daimion Collins.
There would be no excuses necessary. This team had everything that Cal claimed he needed to get UK back to the Final Four: bigs, guards, shooters and experience.
Instead, it’s been an abomination. Kentucky is 1-3 in league play for the first time since 1986-87, the ‘Cats are 10-6 and still without a resume win as we approach mid-January. They are No. 62 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, six spots behind Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels. The ‘Cats have now gone from the team everyone wanted to watch for entertainment value into one that people now want to watch for comedic value.
The offense is antiquated and it’s clear that Calipari misses his old X’s and O’s guy, John Robic.
“I think he’s lost the players,” one head coach said after facing Kentucky this season. “Their offense is so shitty. He doesn’t run anything for their guards. He has no idea how to use Cason Wallace.”
“They should still be getting the best talent,” another coach added. “And they have enough talent right now to finish in the top three or four of the SEC.”
It’s been a disaster — on both ends of the court. A South Carolina team that managed a total of 42 points in its previous game scored 42 in the first half at Rupp on Tuesday night.
“I thought we’d be a hell of a defensive team,” Calipari said after the loss to South Carolina.
Instead, it was the matador defense against a Gamecocks team that entered the game with a sub-.500 record.
Calipari was outcoached by Tom Izzo down the stretch in a double-overtime loss to Michigan State on Nov. 15 in Indianapolis. Two games later, the ‘Cats were blown out by Gonzaga in Spokane. There was a win over Michigan, a fringe tourney team, but it’s been all downhill since. A double-digit loss to UCLA at Madison Square Garden, an embarrassment in Columbia against Missouri and being boat-raced by 26 points by Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
But Tuesday night may have hit a new low in the Calipari Era when Kentucky lost at home to a South Carolina team that was ranked 264th in the NET and coming off a 43-point loss at home to Tennessee.
I’ve never had much of a relationship with Calipari, but I’ve defended him against the critics the last couple of years, warning those to be careful what they wish for, because there was once a guy named Billy Clyde Gillispie in Lexington whose tenure lasted two seasons, with a total of 40 wins and sans a tourney win.
But it’s time. It’s time for Kentucky, and it’s time for Calipari.
Calipari still has six years left on the 10-year deal he signed in 2019, and just shy of $40 million guaranteed on the table after the season. There’s an offset that would lower what Kentucky would owe him if he gets another job. So as long as Calipari gets plucked by someone else, which will happen, Kentucky won’t be on the hook for anywhere close to $40 million.
There’s been speculation that Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte will make a run at Calipari.
Sure, Calipari can still recruit at a high level, but it’s far more frustrating for Big Blue Nation to watch talent wasted. Cal has pulled in 36 top-50 recruits since 2015, and he’s put 18 players in the NBA over that span. For comparison’s sake, Kansas’ Bill Self has brought in 12 top-50 recruits and coached nine NBA players since 2015.
Over his first six seasons in Lexington, Calipari went to the Final Four four times. But he hasn’t been since 2015.
“The game has passed him by,” said one head coach.
There are wiser options for Del Conte in Austin. If he has any questions, he should just call Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart.
Eric Musselman has taken Arkansas to consecutive Elite Eight appearances. Nate Oats went to the Sweet 16 in 2021. Bruce Pearl went to the Final Four in 2019.
All would be superior hires for CDC than the 63-year-old Calipari.
I’d even make a case that Kansas State rookie head coach Jerome Tang would be a more intelligent maneuver than bringing Calipari to Austin. Tang has energy, he knows the area from his time building Baylor into a national championship-caliber program. Tang grinds it.
Calipari doesn’t. He’s lost his fastball.
Kentucky will take a hit if Calipari departs Lexington. It’ll be a mass exodus. He’s signed a loaded class that’s expected to arrive in Lexington next season: DJ Wagner (No. 1), Justin Edwards (No. 2), Aaron Bradshaw (No. 6), Robert Dillingham (No. 9) and Reed Sheppard (No. 28).
That class would fall apart if Calipari leaves, but we’re in the portal age and the next coach — whether it’s a guy like Oats, Pearl or Baylor’s Scott Drew — would use the Kentucky brand, and no shortage of NIL, to assemble a team capable of getting to the Big Dance and winning a game.
Something that Calipari hasn’t done in 1,384 days.