Fire Calipari? Are you crazy? UK plays the percentages in locking down the man who rebuilt the program
With Sunday’s loss to the Auburn Tigers, for the fourth consecutive season, John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats ended up shy of the NCAA Final Four. This means that NBA first-round draft picks like Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Kevin Knox, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and very likely first-round future picks like P.J. Washington and Keldon Johnson all came and went from Lexington without an appearance in college basketball’s ultimate showcase.
On Monday, Kentucky announced a “lifetime” contract with Calipari, seeking to keep him in Lexington as long as the coaching itch needs scratched, and making him an ambassador for the school in his post-coaching days.
On the surface, these two things don’t seem to go together very well. Small pockets of Big Blue Nation are angry — no, make that furious — no, make that inconsolable — that Calipari had the audacity to lead his usual bumper crop of stars to a season’s finish that didn’t include an SEC regular season title, an SEC Tournament title, or a Final Four appearance.
If you didn’t know better, you’d almost think the NCAA Tournament was some fly-by-night single-elimination affair in which college basketball’s biggest prize was now guaranteed to not end in Durham with the nation’s top collection of talent, or Lexington with perhaps the second best, or Chapel Hill with arguably the third-best, or in Los Angeles, where a coaching search is under way for the team that has the most crowded NCAA trophy case.
If you blinked, you could fool yourself into believing that the Final Four is made up of two first-time coaches, another first-time Final Four coach who was lambasted a year ago for the biggest March fold in Tournament history, and the one coach who has been there before, an unglamorous old potty mouth whose one title came almost 20 years ago.
Wait, that actually is true.
Kentucky decided to dance with the man who brought them because what Calipari has done in Lexington in his decade in town is keep Kentucky perennially in the NCAA title hunt.
Yes, despite fielding a small league’s worth of NBA talent, the man has won just one NCAA title. (Subtle reminder here that three of the four schools left are seeking just one NCAA title — because they’ve never won one.) But 10 seasons have included 7 Elite Eight appearances, 4 Final Fours, 2 national title game berths, and that one shining moment in 2012.
To throw a bone to the angry part of Big Blue Nation, yes, Calipari remains very much a work in progress (or a lack of progress) as an Xs-and-Os coach. Yes, he rode Andrew and Aaron Harrison to defeat in 2015 rather than turn over his team to the superior back court of Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. Yes, he left Ashton Hagans in on Sunday even after Auburn had all but broken his will. Yes, the Auburn loss felt not at all unlike the previous season’s Sweet 16 upset to a Kansas State team that seemed physically outmatched, but just outfought UK down the stretch.
But here’s the thing — college basketball is hard. Winning 6 games in a single-elimination tournament takes a unique combination of talent, chutzpah, and unfettered good luck. If any element is off, good night, season over.
This year, Duke had even better talent than Kentucky. With the 3 top players in the year’s recruiting class — including one who might literally be basketball royalty — Duke struggled valiantly even to reach the Elite Eight. They probably should have lost in the round of 32. On the other hand, North Carolina didn’t follow the “one-and-done” model. The Tar Heels assembled a collection of veteran talent along with a couple of top freshmen, and they were one of the hottest teams in the country coming into NCAA play. They lost to Auburn by 17. Even Virginia, now the title favorite, needed a miracle shot to survive into overtime and best Purdue. This came after the Hoos trailed at halftime in the 1 v. 16 game, creating massive déjà vu scares throughout their scarred fan base.
As in any sports culture, the “haves” are spoiled with expectations of success that the “have nots” could never imagine. There is an ugly underbelly here — success is not guaranteed.
In Kentucky’s 10 most recent seasons before Calipari, the Wildcats reached 2 Elite Eights and zero Final Fours. They lost 10 or more games in 7 of those 10 seasons. Six times, the Wildcats failed to reach the NCAA’s Sweet 16. The Wildcats had three NBA first-round draft picks in that decade, and were well on their way to being a second-tier college basketball school.
Kentucky basketball is not going to be irrelevant like that under Calipari.
Yes, there are some March flameouts. Never anything like, say, the opening-game Lehigh or Mercer embarrassments that Coach K’s teams have thrown out there, but early NCAA exits are disappointing. Yes, there will be a revolving door of one-and-done talent, some of whom are young men who genuinely buy into the program, and some of whom feel pretty darn mercenary. The only way that will change is when and if the NBA’s early entry system changes.
Calipari will field competitive teams that will play deep into March. Yes, he would benefit from a wily old assistant coach who could draw up a few things (possibly an out of bounds play, ever?) and maybe encourage the coach not to suddenly change his substitution patterns in a big game. But he’s a face of the program, an ambassador for the university, and a guy who gives Kentucky as good of a chance in the lottery of NCAA single-elimination as anybody.
Under his watch, Kentucky has won more basketball games in these 10 years than any program in America.
Droughts happen in the NCAA. In the 10 years Cal has been at Kentucky, Coach K has had two 4-year streaks of missing the the Final Four. Williams had a 6-year gap. Bill Self had a 5-year Final Four drought, and is now more than a decade since his last NCAA title. Izzo has never gone more than 4 years without a Final Four, but then again, he’s also not won a title since 2000.
Kentucky read the situation and decided to stay in its lane — for better or worse. Again, a tough loss on Sunday aside, it’s generally been better.