By Tony Meale
All right, can we put the Calipari Kool-Aid down? Just for a little bit? Please?
By now, you’re probably familiar with Kentucky’s litany of accomplishments this year: Fourth 8-seed to ever play for the title. First team to beat three Final Four teams from the previous season. Lowest margin of victory entering the national championship. Kentucky played down to the wire in four straight games, ultimately winning by a combined 11 points.
It was one of the most exciting, captivating runs in the history of college basketball.
It was also one of the least surprising.
You see, over the last few weeks, Kentucky – the winningest program of all time with the greatest recruiting class of all time – has tried its darnedest to play the underdog card, to use its 8-seed as a rallying cry, to use words like “magic” and “destiny” to ignore the cold, hard fact that defined the Wildcats’ 2013-14 season:
This was the worst coaching job of John Calipari’s career.
How Calipari lost 10 games during the regular season with that team, with that talent, is a mystery. He went 1-6 against ranked teams, including 0-3 against Florida. He lost six games in the SEC. (Yes, the SEC). At the end of the season – when teams are supposed to be peaking – the Wildcats dropped three of four.
In December, Andrew Harrison said that lack of talent is never a reason Kentucky loses. Well, if it’s not lack of talent, that leaves lack of effort (which goes back to coaching) or lack of coaching (which goes back to coaching).
Calipari did everything he could to motivate his team this year. He didn’t ignite the 40-0 discussion, but he didn’t extinguish it, either. He got ejected from a loss to South Carolina. He blew off a press conference. He called his players out in the media.
In Calipari’s office, you’ll probably find a stray noodle or two stuck to the wall.
The rest resides tangled on the floor.
Now, the regular season, you’ll counter, is meaningless. It’s all preparation for the tournament. Fair enough.
Let’s look at the tournament, shall we?
Archie Miller, with a Buckeye transfer and a bunch of no-name upperclassmen, beat Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford to lead Dayton to its first Elite Eight since 1984. That’s coaching.
Jon Beilein lost his best player, Mitch McGary, for the season in December, still won arguably the toughest basketball conference in the country and came within a bounce or two of getting back to the Final Four. That’s coaching.
Bo Ryan, without a single McDonald’s All-American on his roster, came within a three-pointer from the parking lot of getting to the national championship. That’s coaching.
Calipari? He needed five NBA players (or six or seven or eight, depending on the scout) to beat teams with one or two NBA players, in the final seconds, in four straight games.
That’s not coaching. That’s pathetic.
After beating Wisconsin in the Final Four, Calipari said he didn’t call timeout on Kentucky’s final possession because he didn’t want to get Ryan “involved.” This was candid humility by Calipari. It was also an admission of his own shortcomings as a coach.
Each of the Wildcats’ previous four games leading up to the final – they led at halftime in zero of them – was a microcosm of their season. We’re not going to play – really, truly play – until we absolutely have to. Aaron Harrison’s trio of game-winning three-point shots – all with a defender in his face and a hand in his eye – was a microcosm of what Kentucky’s program has become. My guy is flat out better than yours – and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Only on Monday night, Connecticut did. The Huskies raced out to a 30-15 advantage but led just 35-31 at the break. At halftime – and after the game – Calipari attributed Kentucky’s slow start to its youth.
Really? You’d think after starting slow in four straight games, that wouldn’t be an issue in the fifth.
A tooth-and-nail second half saw Kentucky pull within one possession of UConn time and time again. The Wildcats had 12 second-half possessions in which they trailed by three points or fewer. During those possessions, Kentucky went 1-for-9 from the floor with three turnovers.
Where was Calipari? Where was the brilliant play call to seize control, to take the lead, to win a championship?
There was none.
In a game the Wildcats were favored to win, they didn’t lead for a single second – despite shooting 14 more free throws than the opposition.
How does that happen?
Look, if you want to credit Julius Randle for being a beast in the post all year, go ahead. If you want to credit (Aaron) Harrison for delivering in the clutch time and time again, be my guest.
I won’t argue with you.
But please, the canonization of Calipari has got to stop. There was nothing brilliant, much less miraculous, about his coaching in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s offense can be summed up as follows: get the ball to Randle so he can exploit a mismatch, or spread the floor and let [insert future NBA player here] drive and exploit a mismatch. Oh, and throw in some lobs for good measure.
There were no X’s and O’s about it. The notion that Kentucky – with 55 assists and 66 turnovers in the tournament – suddenly learned how to play as a team is as absurd as it is inaccurate.
Far more comical, though, is the observation that Calipari’s success at Kentucky – three Final Fours in five years – is proof that his system “works.”
Really? You mean having the best players year-in and year-out is a recipe for success? My, what brilliant analysis.
But what do we make of Calipari now? Two years ago, he went 38-2 and won a national title with a historic collection of talent. Since then, he’s gone to the NIT in one year and from preseason No. 1 to unranked in another.
Just how great of a coach is he?
Calipari’s true genius, many insist, lies in his ability to manage egos, to connect with players and get them to coalesce as a team.
So, basically, to be a therapist.
Kentucky diehards will call this hate speech. They’ll call it jealousy. It’s neither. Rather, it’s distaste for the one-night-stand philosophy by which Calipari operates. In the final game of Kentucky’s last four seasons, Calipari has used 19 different starters, including 10 in the last two years.
Want to guess how many players from last year’s Kentucky squad are in the NBA? Two. Nerlens Noel, who has yet to play a professional minute due to injury, and Archie Goodwin, who is averaging 3.3 points per game for the Suns.
Ah, so that’s what Calipari does without bonafide NBA talent. He loses to Robert Morris in the NIT.
Kentucky is no longer a college basketball program. It’s a semi-pro team masquerading as a college basketball program. You can love Calipari for delivering one title in five years, but he’s no Einstein. He does his best coaching on signing day – and that was never more apparent until this season.
In an ideal world, Randle, the Harrison twins and the other UK freshmen will return for their sophomore seasons as older, wiser players determined to win a title. Calipari’s recruiting style, however, makes that virtually impossible.
Then again, with a little more coaching – or just some to begin with – they’d probably be champions already.
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