Once unthinkable, now unavoidable: John Calipari is on the clock at Kentucky
Might as well make it official. John Calipari’s career at Kentucky is on a 1-year clock.
Kentucky fans loved the 4 Final Fours and 2 national title game appearances in 6 years pace of the 2010-2015 Kentucky/Calipari combo. It was fun having John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker as Wildcats. Of being the fastest gun in town for a time.
Kentucky fans tolerated the 2016-2019 run. It wasn’t exactly awful, with a pair of potential Final Fours ending up missing by a single shot. There were plenty more outstanding players, even if they quickly jetted out of Lexington for the green pastures of the NBA.
All was well, if not exactly perfect.
But then came 2020, when admittedly the COVID pandemic robbed everyone of an outcome to a fairly promising season. And 2021, when a badly broken team stumbled to a 9-16 season. And 2022, when Kentucky spent a season on the edge of a full return to form, only to suffer an embarrassing opening-round NCAA loss to St. Peter’s.
Add in 2023, which was a gear below 2020, but did manage to end in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. But in the past 4 seasons, Calipari has won a single regular season SEC title and a single NCAA Tournament game.
Getting overtaken by Kansas and Duke and North Carolina on the national scene isn’t thrilling, but it can be explained. Getting overtaken by Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas in the SEC is a more difficult to understand. And Calipari hasn’t helped his cause, either.
For a guy who was hired in part because of never meeting a TV camera he didn’t like, Calipari has spent much of the past 4 years being contrary or absent. He misses press conferences, blows off interviews early, and generally seems over much of the mystique of the Kentucky program.
In Calipari’s first 6 years, he rarely seemed to meet a recruiting miss. Now, between early transfers (Johnny Juzang, Bryce Hopkins), mid-range players who never find the next level (Ashton Hagans, Sahvir Wheeler), and guys who were just recruiting evaluation mistakes (Tai Wynyard? Lance Ware?), Kentucky needs a better than average tactical coach to overcome talent and scheme deficiencies. Too often, they haven’t had one.
The sad lesson of the past 2 seasons is that Calipari’s instance on an outdated offense that predicates success on long 2-point shots is certainly not a program changer. In 13 years in Lexington, he hasn’t installed a zone defense or seemingly developed an in-bounds play. Mediocre coaching with top-flight recruiting and program management worked well. Without it, he’s a huge salary and a stagnant bundle of negative energy who is getting outcoached by the Dennis Gateses and Jerry Stackhouses of the world.
All of which makes this offseason and next season the fork in the road for Calipari and UK.
Pulling out all his mojo, Calipari has a vintage Cal type of freshman recruiting class. DJ Wagner was appointed as a star in training years ago. Justin Edwards is the late leader for the best player in the class. Aaron Bradshaw, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard are all top-level talents.
And they may have saved Calipari’s job — for a year anyway.
If another season produces another 10-loss team coasting into the NCAA Tournament in underwhelming fashion and bowing out in its first 2 games, it really will be past time for Kentucky and Calipari to part ways. That’ll be 4 full seasons where even mediocrity was sometimes out of reach. This is the kind of recruiting class that was Calipari’s calling card, and if he really can’t blend talented kids and develop some kind of actual buy-in, then why keep him around?
Meanwhile, the sky isn’t falling. Calipari will be back, and may manage to keep a few of the better players from his 2022-23 roster. But whatever he’s doing, he’d be well advised to do it quickly. For much of Big Blue Nation, Coach Cal is on the clock. The next year will tell the tale.