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John Calipari’s had his share of talented teams that doubled as in-season, work-as-you-go projects. In some years, he’s successfully navigated the difficult, self-prompted assignment of figuring out how to get a roster lacking in familiarity to play at the highest level in college basketball.
But only once before has a Calipari-coached Kentucky team lost at least two of its first five games. It was the 2020-21 squad that was historically horrible, going 9-16 in a pandemic-affected season that rattled Kentucky fans to their core.
Aside from ’19-20, the only other previous time Calipari’s Cats lost at least two games in November, as this team has now done, was in 2012-13. Those Wildcats failed to make the NCAA Tournament after Nerlens Noel suffered a season-ending injury in SEC play. UK infamously went on to lose in the first round of the NIT against Robert Morris.
This team won’t be like those teams. While it might be conceivable in a parallel universe, in the one we know and love, this Kentucky team has no chance of finishing below .500 and failing to win 10 games. Beyond that, it would register as a surprise if this team didn’t wind up in the top-15 variety come March. With the reigning national player of the year (Oscar Tshiebwe), veterans galore, future NBA talent and multiple dependable 3-point shooters, Calipari has everything he could ask for in a Final Four-type roster.
So why doesn’t it look like Kentucky has those luxuries at its disposal? This year was the 11th time UK entered as a preseason top-five team in the AP poll under Calipari. Two weeks in, that’s not what we’re seeing. Kentucky is 3-2, its three wins coming at home against Howard, Duquesne and South Carolina State — teams that are a combined 6-11. The two losses have come by a combined 25 points to Michigan State (86-77 in overtime) and No. 2 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs strolled to a 88-72 win over the fourth-ranked Wildcats Sunday night, the first game in a six-year series between the two.
When the polls refresh Monday afternoon, Kentucky will plunge out of the top 10. If it’s going to get back into the upper tier of the rankings, the Kentucky team that traveled to Spokane, Washington, needs to never be seen from again. Coach included. Hard to figure how a group with Tshiebwe (even if not yet fully at 100%, conditioning-wise) could get outworked 44-24 in the paint. Gonzaga did that. Hard to figure how Kentucky could induce Gonzaga into 18 turnovers and still lose by 16, but it happened. Tshiebwe had 20 points and 15 rebounds, a typical night at the office, and essentially offset Drew Timme‘s 22-and-7 showing. But just as Kentucky isn’t all Tshiebwe, Gonzaga isn’t all Timme: Mark Few’s team got a game-high 24 points out of Rasir Bolton, and another 20 from Julian Strawther.
The Wildcats haven’t made the Final Four since 2015. Kentucky fans — as passionate as they come in college athletics — gave Calipari a pass for a good four years after the 38-1 team fell two wins short of immortality. But patience has worn thin. As a college coach, Calipari’s never faced more pressure, at least outwardly, than what he’s up against this season. This isn’t to suggest he’s on the hot seat, because he isn’t, but by failing to get a 1-1 split against Michigan State and Gonzaga, he’s fueled a portion of the fan base that wants Kentucky basketball to be as dominant and reliable as Alabama football. (Logic be damned.)
I believe Calipari and Kentucky will get this right and that a bright season is ahead. I picked UK to win the national title. But I haven’t seen a title-winning team in those uniforms yet. It’s Calipari’s job to pull that out of this team, and a lot of people have lost faith in his capacity to do that.
For the majority of Calipari’s tenure, the UK fan base has pushed back on the cynicism from others around the sport that their coach was overrated. It feels like that line of defense is now starting to wilt. Calipari’s often been at his best when doubted or cornered. Thanks to a rickety 3-2 start, we’ll soon out just how good Kentucky wants to be and how fueled Calipari is to destroy the stink of disappointment that’s lingered from the past two years.
Correction: An initial version of this column indicated Kentucky went 9-16 in 2019-20.
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