John Calipari's Kentucky tourney flops continue as calls for his job get louder

Forty-eight men’s college basketball teams have won at least two NCAA tournament games since 2021.

The sport’s most deep-pocketed blue blood, against all odds, isn’t one of them.

Eight-time national champion Kentucky can’t seem to get out of the NCAA tournament’s opening round, let alone halt its nine-year Final Four drought. A Wildcats program that lost in the round of 64 one time from 1988-2022 now has suffered that fate twice in the past three seasons.

On Thursday, it was a catch-and-shoot specialist who played for Division II Hillsdale College last season who added to Kentucky’s misery. Jack Gohlke buried 10 threes, one shy of the single-game NCAA tournament record, fueling 14th-seeded Oakland’s stunning 80-76 upset over the heavily favored Wildcats.

Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent years that Kentucky has made an NCAA tournament folk hero out of a not-yet-well-known opposing player. Two years ago, it was Doug Edert, Saint Peter’s mustachioed sixth man, who spearheaded an improbable 15-versus-2 upset. Last year, it was Markquis Nowell, Kansas State’s 5-foot-8 Mr. New York City, who erupted for 27 points to take down the Wildcats.

The year before that Kentucky wasn’t so generous. The Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament after staggering through their worst season in almost a century, going from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 faceplant.

All this would normally beg the question: Should Kentucky consider a coaching change? Has John Calipari lost the blend of substance and swagger he possessed during the first half of his Kentucky tenure when the Wildcats were Final Four regulars and he probably could have run for state governor and won in a landslide?

“Fire Cal” may have been trending on X on Thursday night, but the stumbling block is that such a move would be far from cheap. Even if Kentucky were bold enough to want to jettison a Hall of Fame coach, Calipari’s contract reportedly calls for him to be owed 75% of the remaining value of his deal. That’s more than $33 million.

John Calipari and Kentucky are headed home early from the NCAA tournament yet again. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)John Calipari and Kentucky are headed home early from the NCAA tournament yet again. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

John Calipari and Kentucky are headed home early from the NCAA tournament yet again. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

It also doesn’t help that there’s not an obvious can’t-miss replacement who could win big and thrive in that fish-bowl environment. Baylor’s Scott Drew just announced that he is staying put after Louisville made a run at him. UConn’s Dan Hurley doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to leave Storrs. There’s always the option of throwing big money at Billy Donovan, but Kentucky has tried that before and come up empty.

What this means is that Kentucky may be stuck with a coach who no longer is the right man for college basketball’s most high-profile job. Calipari is still bringing in McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA lottery picks year after year, but he hasn’t been able to recreate the success of the days of John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.

In his postgame news conference, Calipari admitted that he was “really hurting” after Thursday’s loss — for his players, for Kentucky fans and for himself.

“I just thought I had a team that could do some stuff,” he said.

When asked what went wrong against Oakland, Calipari called his team “anxious” but bristled at the word “tight.” He pointed to mistakes that some of his freshmen made — a missed dunk by Justin Edwards, ill-advised shots by Rob Dillingham, a couple of wildly overthrown passes by Reed Sheppard.

“When you have a really young team and you look at where the mistakes come from, they were freshmen,” Calipari said. “They had performed on the road in hostile environments that I didn’t expect some of the stuff today.”

The problem with that is it’s Calipari who has chosen to keep building mostly around freshmen when college basketball has skewed older in recent years. Only Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 have built freshman-dominated national championship teams. More recently, we’ve seen older teams rise to the top of the sport, teams with a couple of future pros but even more proven transfers.

To his credit, Calipari has evolved with the times to some extent. His recent rosters have each featured older transfers, including Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell on this team. This season, he finally embraced the 3-point shot, spreading the floor with a trio of talented guards and often even playing with only one traditional big man.

The result was his best offensive team at Kentucky but his worst defensive group. The Wildcats couldn’t consistently string together stops, not in non-conference play, not in the SEC and not even against an Oakland team that had never won an NCAA tournament game before this in 26 years as a Division I program.

Will Calipari make more changes next season, assuming he’s back in Lexington another year? He’s not ruling it out, but it doesn’t seem likely.

“I’ve done this with young teams my whole career,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for me to change that, because we’ve helped so many young people and their families that I don’t see myself just saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to recruit freshmen.’

“I like what we were doing offensively. How do we get tougher? How do we get more physical? My teams defensively in rebounding have all been better than this, but we’ve never been like this offensively. I kind of like coaching the way I did this year.”

Something needs to change, whether it’s the coach, the over-reliance on freshmen or the way that Kentucky prepares for the NCAA tournament.

The results show that what Calipari is doing isn’t working. A program that has piled up more all-time Division I wins than anyone else now enjoys its biggest victories on NBA Draft night.

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