Kentucky’s John Calipari era should be over if the Wildcats lag into March
Kentucky and John Calipari’s $86 million marriage is no longer working.
Everyone can see that, right?
After nearly 14 seasons, he’s drained of energy and ideas, coaching a team that has underperformed so badly that every other Kentucky coach would be fired by the end of the month.
Those of you bleeding blue know it’s true, especially after a 75-68 loss in Georgia that puts Kentucky on the outside of the NCAA tournament picture with a month to go. Calipari knows with some certainty that it’s also true that he couldn’t do this job at the age of 64 with the same innovation and energy that he did at 54.
Hey, that can happen to the best of ’em. And it’s happening right before our eyes with Calipari, a Kentucky program so blatantly and precipitously in decline that a change would be healthy for both parties to move forward.
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And yet Calipari and Kentucky are so bound together by a ridiculous “life contract” that no one can admit that a fresh start would be better than the pathetic countdown to a day when they can break free from each other.
That’s the point for Kentucky, a team that finished at No. 4 last season and appears poised to end a 2015 Final Four drought.
Nobody is talking about Final Four now. Crazy things can happen in March, but Kentucky isn’t a good enough basketball team right now to earn those hopes. At this point, based on all the NCAA tournament selection process metrics, it’s going to take some good work in the final six games of the regular season just to avoid the NIT.
Calipari, always the seller, had his talking points in order after the loss to Georgia. He emphasized that Kentucky had two rotation players in guard Sahvir Wheeler and sniper CJ Fredrick, and he cited the quality odds Kentucky has at home against Tennessee and Auburn.
“We have a chance to do what we want,” he said on his postgame radio show on the UK Sports Network.
But we all know that Kentucky isn’t playing to get into the tournament and hope to do some damage. They didn’t make him king of bluegrass to watch football schools like Alabama leave the Wildcats in the dust.
So how to fix it?
The calipari of ten years ago was the perfect coach for Kentucky. That is undeniable. Not only did he handle all the external aspects of the job, but every year he brought in great recruits, pumped them into the NBA and most of the time threatened to win the national title.
Calipari was to have more than just the 2012 lone championship, but there was no real complaint about the type of program he was running.
where did the guy go
As of the 2020-21 season, Kentucky has been helpless. Funky COVID year was a complete mess at 9am-4pm. Last year it looked like a possible rebound, but getting slammed by St. Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament made it a miss. And this year, despite many experience returns and higher-ranking recruits, Kentucky sits somewhere between the 40th-50th best team in the country.
This is not acceptable. This is flammable. And yet Calipari almost certainly won’t be fired because it would cost $40 million.
At any other moment of disappointment in Caliparis’ tenure, Kentucky fans might be hinting that the next class of recruits is coming as a ticket back into the title fight. And indeed, Calipari has four top 10 recruits on board for next season.
But this time he’s lost the benefit of the doubt. The same slogans he’s been spewing out in Memphis since the early 2000s are worn out. And the product always looks stale and unobservable, no matter what players he puts on the floor.
There are many reasons Kentucky has come this far. College basketball has changed in the past decade. Calipari has made some questionable decisions with his coaching staff. His offensive system is clunky and uncreative.
But at the end of the day, Calipari’s philosophy has always been that it’s a talent-driven game and Kentucky was the ideal platform to get that talent and win championships. That’s why he stayed 14 years when he started his job, knowing that for a decade the Kentucky microscope would be hard to stomach.
It’s unlikely that anyone will bail out Kentucky or Calipari from this mess. The NBA isn’t calling. Texas will hire a new coach after this season, but the Longhorns need a coach for the future, not someone whose best years are in the past. And with more than $8 million a year owed to him for the next six seasons, Calipari won’t be willing to walk away from a dime.
In other words, there aren’t many ways to fix what’s broken in Kentucky. Calipari kept saying on Saturday it’s up to the team whether they want to fix the ship this season. The same goes for him and a program that desperately needs someone to either save or end their relationship.