For those who hate Kentucky—and that group grows each year John Calipari is in Lexington—this past season was justice.
Calipari started the year with a reality television show and reason to puff his chest. You could not really argue with his philosophy of bringing in the best recruiting class in the country every year, coaching them up for one season, waving goodbye and welcoming in the next class, because that philosophy had just produced a dominant champion.
What’s Calipari supposed to do, try to recruit lesser talent?
Some coaches recruit to their system, but most, like Calipari, recruit the best players they can get. It just kind of irks everyone outside of Big Blue Nation that Calipari rarely loses out on his wish list.
So when it finally backfired, when UK went from preseason No. 3 to missing the NCAA tournament to losing in the first round of the NIT to ROBERT MORRIS, it was reason to turn our noses up at the one-and-done train in Lexington.
Calipari’s solution was to simply go out and get more pros. It wasn’t that his system was broken; it was that, for the first time he didn’t have enough talent.
"The best thing that is going to happen to us next year is that we're going to have unbelievable competition at every spot," Calipari told the The Lexington Herald-Leader after losing to Robert Morris. "So there's no one promised, saying 'OK, I played 30 minutes a game.' You may play five. The stuff I had to accept this year, the program almost got hijacked."
Oh, poor Cal. That’s the narrative that he’s pushing, and if you want to criticize him, this is a fair point to go after. This is taking the blame and putting it on the players, and that’s not exactly fair. He messed up too. For once, he experienced what other programs that have to start five new starters experience: some growing pains.
But it’s a narrative that works out nicely to motivate the next group, and it’s one they’ve already bought.
“There was no leadership on that team,” incoming point guard Aaron Harrison told Sports Illustrated. “It looked like everyone had his own agenda.”
Calipari’s good, isn’t he?
Getting better talent than everyone else is a big reason why he’s been so good, but what he does with the talent is why he’s been so consistently good.
It’s an NBA approach at an NBA factory. Calipari manages egos and gets his guys to play hard on the defensive end and share the ball on offense. If you can do those things and you have talent, you’re going to win.
Until this past season, that's what he had done.
And at some point early in the year, I’m sure UK’s players had bought in and the system was working, albeit at a slower pace. The problem was the parts just weren’t what Calipari was used to working with, and this is the blame game he can play.
At point guard, he had Ryan Harrow, a transfer from North Carolina State who was also one-and-done at Kentucky. His next destination? The NBA? No, Georgia State.
It was the first time since 2007 that Calipari started a point guard who will never play in the NBA. That was an issue.
Archie Goodwin, the wing who was UK’s go-to scorer, was also a one-and-done. However, he’ll likely end up in the D-League next season, because he’s not ready to be a pro yet. He’s a great athlete without a jumper. That was an issue.
Alex Poythress, a powerful specimen at power forward, disappeared for long stretches and did not always use his physicality to his advantage. He was a player who needed more seasoning and was smart to come back. But when he needed to be a beast right away for Kentucky to be really good, that was an issue.
Calipari had freshmen who played like freshmen, and when he didn’t have other options, that was an issue.
The season was on the upswing until Nerlens Noel tore his ACL against Florida. The 'Cats had started 8-2 in the SEC and had won five straight games.
They responded to Noel's injury by losing by 30 at Tennessee. Noel had allowed Kentucky to hide its biggest weakness: perimeter defense. When he was no longer around to play goalie at the rim, that was an issue.
But to fail like the Wildcats failed was part of a flawed approach. It's hard to cry for Kentucky when the talent was still pretty darn good. Calipari led his team through a pity party, and he was part of it. There's no other explanation for Kentucky losing to Robert Morris.
If Calipari had a lesson to learn, that was it.
He may also be pouting this coming season only because he has so many options. Kentucky has eight McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster. Calipari will have a second five that could be the first five almost anywhere in the country.
Those incoming freshmen are already talking 40-0. They’re already anticipating the battle for playing time.
"With people that hate losing, there's bound to be fights," incoming freshman forward Marcus Lee told the The Lexington Herald-Leader. "The big men and the guards—we just go at it so hard. Especially during practice. I wouldn't doubt that there would be fights."
This could have come from the lips of Calipari. He wants a team that’s hungry. He wants a team that plays with a chip on its shoulder.
Last year, he had a team that wasn't as good as the hype. Maybe there was a sense of entitlement there. The talent was there, but not like the others, and when adversity hit, it withered. When he needed to adjust, he never figured out an adjustment.
No one is going to dispute that this team will be more talented. But at some point, they're not going to look as good on the court as they do on paper.
So the Baby 'Cats better not crown themselves just yet. They might want to cool the 40-0 talk. They would be wise to learn from last season; the product rarely meets the hype, especially with freshmen.
Calipari can manage some egos. He can deflect pressure from his players. That was what he did in 2012 when everything went right. That's the Calipari he needs to be again.
That's the Calipari who rubs people the wrong way...and wins.