LEXINGTON — Over the past nine seasons, a few of the certainties in life were death, taxes and John Calipari fielding a fearsome Kentucky basketball team come NCAA Tournament time. Calipari’s first eight seasons in Lexington yielded four Final Four appearances and another pair of Elite Eight exits for Kentucky.
Admittedly, there was no single blueprint for UK, aside from a constant reliance on one-and-done talent from the top of each year’s recruiting classes. Some years, the Wildcats were a season-long juggernaut, like 2012, when Anthony Davis led the team to the school’s eighth NCAA title, or 2015, when the Wildcats reached the Final Four with an undefeated record only to have their hopes dashed by the Wisconsin Badgers.
Others were uphill stumbles toward what eventually became solid basketball, like 2011 when Kentucky lost nine games and barely escaped a first-round NCAA upset bid from Princeton before going to the Final Four, or 2014, when UK lost 11 games and looked near hopeless before gelling late and running all the way to the NCAA Championship Game.
There have been down years — 2013, for instance, when UK lost big-man Nerlens Noel to injury and floundered to the NIT, or 2016, when a backcourt of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray received no front-court help on the way to a second-round NCAA exist.
But holy bluegrass, what is going on in 2018?
Kentucky took a few returning players from an Elite Eight team from 2017, and added six of the top 31 players in the 2017 recruiting class, per 247sports.com. The results?
Kentucky has lost three games in a row for the first time since March 2009, when they were coached by Billy Gillispie. The Wildcats have dropped five of their past eight games. Two of those losses came at home. UK finds itself 17-8 overall and 6-6 in SEC play heading into its Valentine’s Day date at No. 10 Auburn. If the NCAA Tournament were held today, UK would be on a collision course with a 1 or 2 seed in the second round according to most prognosticators.
But the scariest possibility for Kentucky is that their slump hasn’t even found its bottom yet. With six SEC games to play, Kentucky needs a 3-3 or 4-2 finish to feel relatively good about its NCAA situation. But upcoming games include a trip to league-leading Auburn, another to Arkansas, and a game at the Florida team that beat UK in Rupp Arena. Home games include red-hot Alabama and a Missouri team hot off its first win against Kentucky. A winning stretch down the final run might be easier said than done.
How did Kentucky end up here?
Much as in 2013, the alleged top talent that Calipari attracted wasn’t so prime. Super frosh Jarred Vanderbilt has been injured for most of the season and is just edging into something approaching form. Sharmin-soft 7-footer Nick Richards averages 6.6 points per game. The most talented Wildcat is silky forward Kevin Knox, whose size and shooting ability suggests NBA lottery upside. Unfortunately, his lack of focus and defensive effort suggest a player who can’t be counted on at this stage of development.
In an upset win at West Virginia, Knox scored 34 points on just 17 shots. Two games later, he had five points in a loss at Missouri. The most dependable Wildcat is guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose clutch play has saved Kentucky from a couple more ugly losses.
But the ceiling on this crew is lower than in reason seasons. Forget a John Wall or an Anthony Davis walking through the door, there’s not even a Julius Randle.
Much of the blame has to go back to Calipari, who notes his team’s youth so frequently that if a Lexington drinking game were improvised around his repetition of the phrase, much of Big Blue Nation would have developed alcohol poisoning. He’s cajoled, pleaded, begged, attempted a zone defense, played his son on a few occasions, and generally pushed every button in sight. For the 59 year old Basketball Hall of Famer, it’s fair to wonder how long he wants to undergo this kind of drubbing.
Indeed, even the one potential positive in this season is a mixed bag. The conventional wisdom is that if Calipari’s team underachieves, more players might return. But based off first-year returns from Hamidou Diallo or Quade Green, it’s not entirely certain that another year of watching them play in Lexington would be all that well-appreciated.
And before next year arrives, this season must be played out. At this point, all but the most serene of optimists would conclude a 2011 or 2014-style run is almost out of the question entirely. The SEC seems more balanced than in years. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index forecasts a 3-3 finish to the season, leaving the Wildcats’ league mark at 9-9. The last time UK finished .500 in league play, Gillispie was fired. The last time the Wildcats came in under .500, Eddie Sutton was fired.
Even if nobody is expecting Calipari to be head anywhere after the season, it’s a sobering moment for a program that planned on pursuing UCLA’s championship total. Whether the future will yield a drastic change in Calipari’s one-and-done blueprint is an open question, but for now, many in Lexington worry that if UK doesn’t undergo some extensive and hasty changes, the team might face a none-and-done in the NCAA’s big dance.