What the heck happened to Kentucky basketball this season? | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Blue did get in – to an extent both bizarre and depressing, even as it was anticipated.

Kentucky fans were sprinkled throughout all three levels of Bridgestone Arena for Thursday’s SEC Tournament game against Mississippi State, but theirs was a distant cry from the raucous Cat-ville this event knows.

On the court, though, was the real story. There, too, was a distant cry from the Wildcats that Big Blue Nation usually cheers into lengthy postseasons. Not so this time. After a listless start by UK, a spirited second-half comeback fell just short, and a 74-73 loss to the Bulldogs failed to scratch out one more day for a team hanging by the thread.

Kentucky exited with nine wins this season. A major shift, as none of John Calipari’s previous 11 teams at UK won fewer than 21.

Since 1991, only two NCAA Tournaments have proceeded without Big Blue. So missing out, especially after last year’s Big Dance being wiped out, will be a devastating blow in the Commonwealth.

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What the heck happened this season in Lexington?

“You've got to win games and you've got to be tough and you've got to play winning basketball, not just basketball,” Calipari said. “… We were never able to get fully engaged in that.”

Blame Calipari. Blame his long-time, highly-respected assistant Kenny Payne leaving for the New York Knicks. Blame fate. Blame the pandemic. Blame the small crowds.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells to his players as they face Mississippi State during the second half of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Whatever the reason, another very talented Kentucky team happened to be very, very bad this season. The postmortem figures to be extensive.

Nationally, it’ll be further confirmation of an increasingly undeniable trend: The demise of the one-and-done era of college basketball success.

Didn’t just happen. The sport has been headed in this direction for a while. You go back, maybe, to 2017, when the FBI’s investigation into college hoops recruiting prompted calls for change, especially the NBA’s silly instance that players don’t enter directly from high school.

The one-and-done rule seemed doomed then. It hasn’t been technically, but the transition instead was organic, not because of suits in a boardroom but players in jerseys, some wearing them longer than others. Teams that can keep players on campus longer and out of the NBA have been benefiting ahead of those with revolving doors of top talent.

It’s difficult to plan to do that. It can be counterintuitive for coaches. I mean, who wouldn’t want to recruit the very best college prospects available?

But the evidence has become obvious. For the past decade and change, two programs have embodied the one-and-done approach more than others: Kentucky and Duke. Since 2015, neither Kentucky nor Duke – despite each having very good players -- has reached a Final Four.

In 2020, SEC rivals Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and Vanderbilt each had a player drafted higher than Kentucky. The Wildcats have had only one player since 2016 selected in the first six picks of the NBA Draft. From 2010-15, Kentucky had eight players taken in the top six, including No. 1 picks John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Those heady days bled into the culture of Kentucky’s more recent teams. Highly-rated recruits arriving annually were almost compelled to go pro after one season, even if they shouldn’t. Either that or they were quick to transfer. Because that’s how it is at Kentucky. Staying too long carried a stigma, fair or not. It meant swallowing pride about your own ability, and you also risked getting recruited over, as a new crop of five-stars would diminish your minutes and your draft stock.

This was Calipari’s preference. He has boasted extensively over the years about NBA Draft results. That’s smart in recruiting, but what of that being a perceived priority over Final Fours?

Few fanbases are as passionately devoted as Big Blue Nation, and the mercenary approach to team-building hasn’t been easy for Kentucky fans. They keep having to fall in love with brand new teams each year. Not a bad deal when you’re winning big, but now the Wildcats aren't living up to their end of that.

That was underlined Thursday. Miserable as Kentucky's team has been this season, its fans surely would have packed Bridgestone had the pandemic allowed. Instead, an oddly empty arena left Kentucky’s current players “cheated” in that “they didn’t get to experience it,” Calipari said.

“But I'll say this,” he added, “they could have taken better advantage of the opportunity that was here, playing-wise.”

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.