Only three days after the Alabama coed section gleefully mocked him with chants of “Cal to Texas”, John Calipari suffered even worse indignity.
This time it was a Kentucky fan urging him to take the Longhorns job.
WKYT’s Samantha Valentino of a man carrying a sign that read “Please go to Texas” was escorted out of Rupp Arena on Tuesday night during Kentucky’s stunning 71-68 loss to struggling South Carolina. The man chose to leave the arena rather than give up his sign referring to speculation that Calipari could emerge as a candidate to coach Texas next season.
The incident reflects growing concern in Big Blue Nation that Calipari is no longer the right man for the hottest job in college basketball. Kentucky sports radio, social media and fan forums are overwhelmed with dissatisfaction with Calipari’s seven-plus-season Final Four drought and disappointing recent work.
Two years ago, Kentucky went through its worst season in nearly a century, going from the preseason top 10 to a factory 9-16 face. Last year, the Wildcats suffered their worst NCAA Tournament loss in program history, squandering a 26-win season with a dramatic flop against little-regarded St. Peter’s.
This year’s pre-season top five team was meant to rack up the wins and restore order, so their underperformance only added pressure on Calipari. Despite featuring the reigning National Player of the Year, a pair of top-15 Rivals freshmen and a handful of accomplished veterans, Kentucky played more like a lucky team. to do the NIT only as a team with national title aspirations.
As of Jan. 10, there are 86 college basketball teams that have posted at least one so far this season. Remarkably, Kentucky is not one of them. The Wildcats (10-6, 1-3 SEC) lost to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, Missouri and Alabama by an average of 15 points. Closest to a rousing win is a narrow six-game win over Michigan in London in early December
Until Tuesday, Kentucky could at least pretend they hadn’t suffered big losses. Now the Wildcats have one that will weigh down their resume like an anchor. South Carolina (8-8) should have been a perfect opponent. The Gamecocks were down 32 to Colorado State, 24 to George Washington and 19 to Furman. In their previous game before facing Kentucky, they hosted Tennessee and lost 85-42.
Instead of coming out with something to prove after being embarrassed by Alabama last Saturday afternoon, Kentucky trailed South Carolina 13-2. It wasn’t until the Wildcats trailed 11 with less than four minutes to play that they finally seemed to grasp the urgency of the situation and play with the advantage they were missing.
Speaking to reporters in Lexington after the game, Oscar Tshiebwe repeatedly asked if his teammates had “fucked” enough. Tshiebwe, the reigning player of the year, said he urged Calipari to give the team’s extras a chance if the starters weren’t going to play hard to win.
“If someone is not ready to fight to give what we need, I will ask the coach to bench him,” Tshiebwe said. “If we’re going to lose to people fighting, even extras, we’re going to lose to them, but at least we’re fighting.”
Of course, the only sporadic efforts weren’t Kentucky’s only problem on Tuesday night. Injuries weren’t a good enough excuse either. Kentucky was without starting forward Jacob Toppin (shoulder) and lost starting guard Cason Wallace early in the game to back spasms, but the Wildcats still had plenty of firepower to outplay South Carolina.
One of the main reasons Kentucky failed was that their offensive approach was more disjointed and outdated than ever.
Calipari’s starting five featured a pair of paint-obstructing big men and a playmaker who is more comfortable attacking the rim than shooting from range. Kentucky didn’t go for a 3-pointer until more than 10 minutes into the first half. The Wildcats didn’t connect behind the arc until four minutes into the second half and didn’t sink a second before the final four minutes of the game. When Kentucky doesn’t come out in transition or smash opponents on the offensive glass, the Wildcats usually struggle to string the baskets together.
Tshiebwe’s struggles to defend ball screens also hurt. Opponents will continue to force the 6-9 center to stay ahead of guards in space and make quick decisions until he proves he can do it.
In his post-match press conference, Calipari preached patience and insisted he still believed “this team can be good”.
“It’s a long season,” he repeated several times. “It’s a marathon.”
As Calipari points out, Kentucky has time to make the necessary adjustments and salvage this season, but so far the Wildcats have provided little evidence they are capable of a second-half push. Kentucky waits Saturday in Knoxville for fifth-place Tennessee and its stifling defense. That means things are likely to get worse for the Wildcats before they get better.
KenPom now predicts Kentucky will finish 17-14 overall and 8-10 in the SEC, which would almost certainly leave the Wildcats out of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. It’s a scenario that university officials could not have foreseen in March 2019 when they awarded Calipari a whopping, 10-year, $86 million contract.
It’s hard to imagine Kentucky firing Calipari without cause after this season because school Even for an SEC school, it’s a huge amount of money to pay a Hall of Fame coach to walk away.
More plausible but still unlikely, Calipari is opting to retire on his own to take the job in Texas or to coach in another top program. Does Calipari really want to start from scratch at 63? And, given Calipari’s recent struggles, would the Longhorns or another suitor still be willing to pay the $8 million a year it would take to get him away from Lexington?
The most realistic scenario is for Calipari to stay in Kentucky beyond this season. He may not be the right coach for college basketball’s most high-profile job anymore, but like it or not, Big Blue Nation could be stuck with him for a little longer.