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Friday, May 24, 2024

John Calipari’s future suddenly clouds with another Kentucky early exit in March Madness via 14-seeded Oakland

SportsJohn Calipari's future suddenly clouds with another Kentucky early exit in March Madness via 14-seeded Oakland


Fourteenth-seeded Oakland pulling up to Pittsburgh to punk blue-blooded, third-seeded Kentucky and walking out with an all-time 80-76 upset behind 32 points via 10 3-pointers from a 24-year-old bench player named Gohlke who began his career at Division II Hillsdale College is why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event in American history. 

Coach Greg Kampe, insta-star Jack Gohlke and those golden Golden Grizzlies will move to the forefront of the American sports landscape over the next two days. Their story will rightfully be celebrated on morning talk shows, national news broadcasts, around offices, over Zoom calls, in classrooms, board rooms, gyms, etc. across the country.

As it should be. That was an amazing sporting event that unfolded on Thursday night. 

But there is the other side to this, and on this night, the losing team — and its coach — feels like a story just as big. If not bigger. 

The team on the losing end is Kentucky. It has the most passionate fan base in the sport. It is fanatical. That can work in a coach’s favor or very much against it. For nearly a decade, John Calipari thrived in the ultra-pressurized environment of Lexington, Kentucky. 

Now everything has swung all the way against him. Because for the third straight NCAA Tournament, Calipari has failed to coach his Kentucky Wildcats into the second weekend of the Big Dance. The year before that, Kentucky went 9-16. Not that Kentucky fans reading this need a refresher, but for all others who might, here’s how it’s gone for Calipari’s Cats since the NCAA Tournament was canceled in 2020:

  • 2020-21: Didn’t qualify for the tournament
  • 2021-22: Loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the first round
  • 2022-23: Booted by Kansas State in the second round, finished with 12 losses
  • Thursday night: Gohlke’d

That means Kentucky will go a minimum of 10 years between Final Four appearances, marking the second-longest drought in program history (1998-2011). Calipari has one meager SEC Tournament win in the past four years, too. And here’s a stat that looms large after a loss that will linger for a long time. Kentucky was 27-0 all time against 12-seeds or worse up until 2022. But in its two games since (No. 15 Saint Peter’s, No. 14 Oakland), it’s 0-2. 

Everything’s piling up and the program is at an inflection point.

“It’s not sustainable,” one source connected to Kentucky told CBS Sports Thursday night.

Beyond postseason letdowns, Kentucky has been erratic and unreliable for years. Calipari’s record vs. ranked competition in the past four seasons is 11-18. In the 10 years prior to that, the Wildcats were 63-33 vs. ranked foes.

This team was supposed to be different because it was actually the first entertaining Wildcats outfit in years. They shot the 3-pointer better than anyone in the sport (40.9% after the Oakland loss still rates No. 1 overall), had a dazzling offense supported by dazzling players, freshmen and seniors alike. 

On Thursday, it didn’t matter. Kentucky shrunk. Its defense let it down again. Oakland scored 1.16 points per possession and UK failed to get the stops it needed in the final five minutes. Reed Sheppard was the best/most efficient freshman in the country this season. Against Oakland, he had just three points in one of his worst games. If not for Antonio Reeves (27 points), it might’ve been a Grizzlies runaway victory.

So, here is John Calipari, a 65-year-old man who, in his first year at Kentucky in 2009-10, said he’d almost certainly not last in Lexington more than a decade. It’s been 15 years. To say the past five have been taxing on him and the fan base would be an understatement. Calipari also has a fractured relationship with his athletic director, Mitch Barnhart. 

The money to fire him is just above $33 million. A gargantuan amount. 

So, where does Kentucky go from here? Would Barnhart be able to rally that much money to fire Calipari? Are endings like this so demoralizing that Calipari might consider working with Kentucky on a split for less than $33 million? At what point does the frustration and failure of these end-of-season catastrophes lead to a change in the head coaching position of Kentucky’s men’s basketball program?

One thing that is inescapably true: The fan base is done and they are not coming back. A loss like this is it. Calipari will not be able to woo or talk his way back into the good graces of Kentucky’s base. On that front, it’s over.

A large portion of Big Blue Nation has been fed up since the Saint Peter’s loss. The Oakland debacle is going to pull just about everyone over to that side. If Calipari can’t be paid out, what is the solution? This is KENTUCKY. The longer this goes on, the more toxic it will get. I would argue that things can get worse than how it seems in the heat of the loss, because there’s one potential future that mostly includes bitterness, apathy and fatigue. 

Replacing Calipari is another conversation altogether, but for many that conversation has moved from “who could take this job and handle it the way Calipari has?” to “we have to try something else.”

This could have been a special team with a special season. It had the talent to make the Final Four. But the NCAA Tournament opens opportunities for all, which means every team, every coach, every player in it stands on the ledge of immortality and/or infamy. 

There have been way too many terrible losses for Kentucky and Calipari in the past few seasons; Thursday night’s pratfall against Oakland feels like the worst of them all. For everyone involved, it may truly finally be best to move on. Getting to that point won’t be easy, but something worth doing seldom is. Calipari was the right coach at the right time when he came to Lexington in 2009 to save the program. And save it he did. 

Now this program needs something of a savior again. At minimum, it needs a fixer. And we are running out of reasons to believe Calipari is still the guy who wants the tools in his hands or, even worse, that he knows how to use them. 





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