Why John Calipari cannot afford to write off dreadful season as side effect of pandemic

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – After Kentucky basketball’s season-ending loss to Mississippi State, John Calipari wanted no part of questions about what went wrong in an embarrassing season.

Despite twice declining to address whether the 9-16 season signaled change was needed within the program or was an unfortunate byproduct of an unprecedented season during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hall of Fame coach couldn’t stop himself from sending a clear message about his feelings.

“This is having a brand-new team without Keion (Brooks), without Terrence (Clarke), trying to do this, then playing one of the best schedules in the country,” Calipari said after his team’s 74-73 loss in its SEC Tournament opener. “Doesn't bode well for what was going on.

“You know what's sad? We were a couple wins away from being a team, even with a bad record, two or three wins, and you're right there with all the numbers that they're saying all these teams (have) in the NCAA Tournament.”

Sorry Coach, that explanation is not going to cut it.

More:Stay or go? Who might return for Kentucky basketball next season, who might leave

In the coming days and weeks, Calipari owes it to Big Blue Nation to provide a concrete evaluation of the program’s worst season since 1927.

Yes, the lack of a normal preseason, cancelation of the November buy games against low-major opponents Kentucky uses to build momentum and absence of the usual fan support at Rupp Arena and on the road directly contributed to the dismal results.

It’s fair to say in a “normal” season, Kentucky would almost certainly not have had a losing record. It probably would have even been an NCAA Tournament team.

But does anyone really think this group would have been a Final Four contender by playing Detroit, Georgia State, Cleveland State, UAB and Marshall?

“We just didn’t have enough, and it came to bite us toward the end,” senior guard Davion Mintz said of the loss the Mississippi State. “I just felt like they wanted it more than us in those last couple minutes, and they were executing exactly what their coach had for them.”

That damning indictment from one of Kentucky’s own players following a must-win game to extend the season after 24 games playing together says all you need to know about the flaws in the Wildcats’ roster.

Writing off the 2020-21 disaster as a byproduct of the pandemic alone would be a mistake for Calipari. The abysmal offense and reliance on inexperienced players have been growing issues all year.

If Calipari is serious about Kentucky remaining the “gold standard” of college basketball as he likes to say, the time for change is at hand.

Calipari should not be faulted for recruiting the best players he can get to campus, but the Kentucky staff has not landed recruits the caliber of John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns who are capable of carrying a team from day one as freshmen in recent years.

Brandon Boston, the program’s first top-five signee since 2015, was supposed to be that player, but he was woefully inconsistent in what still is likely to be his only season at Kentucky. Every time Boston looked like he had figured things out, like when he scored a season-high 21 points in the regular season finale, he came crashing back to Earth, like in the Mississippi State game where he was held scoreless in 23 minutes.

Without those elite freshmen, Kentucky needs more veteran contributions. Having players like PJ Washington and Immanuel Quickley stick around in Lexington and still blossom into productive NBA players is a step in the right direction in convincing more of the Wildcats’ borderline draft prospects to return to school. Calipari and his staff also deserve credit for embracing the transfer portal in recent years as a method of adding experience to the roster.

But with the NCAA expected to pass transfer reform that will allow all players to transfer once without sitting out a year, keeping role players in Lexington is only going to grow more difficult.

Also:Kentucky basketball ends season with single-digit wins for the first time since 1927

The transfer portal should provide opportunity for Kentucky to supplement its roster, but it also presents a threat to keeping role players the program needs to develop over multiple years.

The NCAA continues to kick the can down the road on Name, Image and Likeness legislation that would allow players to profit off their own endorsements while in school. That reform could be a game-changer for Kentucky, which boasts the type of avid fan base and money-making opportunities that might be able to lure top players currently opting for the NBA’s G-League to college.

Calipari deciding to embrace a modern offense that takes advantage of the 3-point shot rather than downplays its importance could be key in all three facets: signing the best recruits, keeping players at UK and attracting top-level transfers.

After the season-ending loss, Calipari did not want to address any of those issues. He will not be able to avoid them for long now that the season is finished.

“This season was a lesson for them,” Calipari said of his players. “Hopefully, if they self-evaluate, they know where they are as an individual player. They also know this is a team game. If you don't play together, you can't win.

“Again, I feel bad for them. They did not get to experience Kentucky. Now, you and I know if we got up five in a normal season, how many people would have been in this building? 17,000 out of 19 (thousand) would have been Kentucky people. Then you finish off the game. This experience for them, they've been cheated. But you know what, I'll say this: They could have taken better advantage of the opportunity that was here playing-wise. I wish I could have helped them more. I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have thought of different things.”

Calipari's players are not the only members of the program who should be engaging in self-evaluation in the coming days.

Calipari could not solve this team’s issues in time to salvage the season. Now he has to hope for a different outcome if he wants to keep Kentucky at the top of the college basketball pecking order.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ