Fueled by the bold-faced diminishing returns in the last three seasons, the seat under John Calipari’s tush is burning hotter than at any time in his collegiate head-coaching career. This is not only a man unaccustomed to losing; this is a man unaccustomed to being anything less than adored. Schools are always desperate to hang onto Calipari, never anxious to see him go. When Kentucky signed Calipari to a lifetime deal in 2019, it’s because no one wanted him to leave Lexington.
Now Big Blue Nation is near searching for pitchforks, and the ire is directed at Calipari. The man once considered the savant of college basketball — the coach who figured out how to work the one-and-done system — now tracks more towards the Jimbo Fisher of the sport. Does less with more. To wit, in his tenure, Calipari has recruited 63 top 50 players, coached 14 All-Americans, 10 SEC Rookies of the Year, six SEC Players of the Years and produced 45 NBA Draft picks, 22 who turned out to be lottery players. Yet he has one national championship to show for it.
It’s come to a head this season — a roster featuring the returning national player of the year, three five-star recruits, two four-star recruits and four highly-desired transfers is 8-4 and 0-1 in the Southeastern Conference after a 14-point loss at Missouri on Wednesday. Like Fisher’s Texas A&M, most concerns center around Kentucky’s offensive style, or lack thereof.
To be fair, the New Year is not even here. Plenty of time for Kentucky to right itself, or Calipari to discover yet another “tweak” to salvage the season. (Although if starting Lance Ware is the best he’s got, he might want to tweak the tweak).
Still, the numbers are the numbers, and they are not improving. Two seasons ago, the Wildcats finished 9-16 with a roster that included six players ranked as top-50 recruits. Last year, with the national player of the year (Oscar Tshiebwe) on the roster and a first-round pick (TyTy Washington), they were ousted by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the first round.
This year, the redemption season if you will, started with Kentucky ranked fourth in the country (and No. 1 on KenPom) and Calipari crowing about his team’s powerful summer performance in the Bahamas.
Since then, the Wildcats have been outcoached by Tom Izzo, outrun by Gonzaga, punked by UCLA, and, this week, pulverized by Missouri. They let Florida A&M hang around for a half, and Yale even longer. In the latest NET Rankings, Kentucky bumbles in at 40th, and is 0-3 in Quad 1 games — its best win against a Michigan team that is 0-4 in Q1 games.
All of which begs a very simple question: What gives? The Athletic posed that question to people who have studied Kentucky the most this season — six coaches who have played or will play Kentucky this season. There are tons of offshoots to explore, but the overarching theme is pretty simple: “I’ll be honest. We just talked about this the other day. I’m not sure what Cal wants,’’ says one coach, who like all, asked for anonymity when interviewed. “At first it was about talent, beating Duke. Then it was winning the recruiting wars. Now it’s the transfer portal. It’s like get the best players and hope it works. But that’s just not how it works. It’s like there’s an identity crisis.’’
Back in his heyday with Memphis, Calipari earned accolades for his adaptations to the dribble-drive offense. He seemed near revolutionary, putting the ball in the hands of smart guards, and allowing them to attack and create. Derrick Rose dribble drove the Tigers to within a Mario Chalmers’ 3-pointer of a national title. But at Kentucky, Calipari became slightly more traditional, relying on true power forwards and bigs who played the game the way the position dictated. It worked well for a while — and especially well with Anthony Davis in 2012.
But along the way, the game evolved, tracking as college basketball always does in lockstep with the NBA. Even control-freak college coaches ceded a little, exchanging mistakes and player decision-making for a premium on shooting, spacing and spreading the floor.
Since Kentucky’s title only one national-championship team — 2013 Louisville — has shot worse than 36 percent from the arc. In that same span, Kentucky has shot better than 36 percent just twice, this year and in 2016. ”Their offense is archaic,’’ says one coach. “It’s gotta be the same s— he was running with the New Jersey Nets.” Predictable is how another coach describes it, so much so that his team spent little time worrying about sets and simply concentrated on player tendencies. “Yeah, he’s been running the same stuff for years,’’ adds another. “When you have stud players, though, it works. When you’re running floppy action for Tyler Herro, that’s a bucket. It’s a little different if it’s not him.’’
Calipari purposefully went out and sought shooters in the transfer portal (Antonio Reeves from Illinois State and C.J. Fredrick from Iowa). Yet it hasn’t made a significant bounce in the overall offense. “Well, that’s because if you don’t run good offense to get open shots, it doesn’t matter how many good 3-point shooters you have,’’ a coach says.
Another coach specifically pointed to the Wildcats’ pace and lack of precision, that they “jogged” through cuts. “You sprint, and the defense is like, what are they doing? Where are they going? Otherwise it’s pretty easy,’’ he says.
The upshot is that not only is scouting Kentucky less than challenging, but it’s also far easier to keep up with the Wildcats than it should be. On paper, there is no way Shabazz Napier and UConn beat the Wildcats in the national title game in 2014, or Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin stops the undefeated Cats in the Final Four. Luke Maye had no business dropping 17 in the Elite Eight in 2017. “And I mean seriously,’’ one coach says. “How did Saint Peter’s beat them?”
The answer is that it’s easier to hang with a team that doesn’t know who or what it is. “You know how people always say that with Virginia, you can hang in a game with them because of their style of play?” one coach says. “It’s why they can lose to a 16 (seed) and then win a national championship. But with Tony (Bennett), he’s going to hang on to that defense, on the fact that guys know how to get shots and do what they’re supposed to. That’s who he is and what he trusts. With Cal, you can always hang in because of the lack of an offensive scheme. There’s no sense of purpose. They don’t know who they are.’’
Some of that, coaches believe, is a byproduct of the portal. Tshiebwe (West Virginia), Reeves, Fredrick, Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia) and Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island) are all transfers. Granted, all but Reeves are at least two years into their Kentucky tenure (Fredrick transferred in 2021 but missed the next season due to injury), but mix in Tshiebwe’s preseason absence due to injury, and there’s a clear lack of connectedness on this year’s roster. “You got guys not knowing what plays they’re running,’’ one coach says. “And you don’t have any leaders that you grew. That’s some of it. Not all of it, but definitely some of it.’’
An offensive intervention might help. Calipari didn’t invent the dribble-drive. He got it from high school coach Vance Walberg and made it his own. Coaches think maybe he needs a similar voice whispering in his ear now. Two of his assistants count as Calipari disciples. Bruiser Flint started on his UMass staff in 1989, and Orlando Antigua joined in 2008 at Memphis. Chin Coleman is in only his fourth year as a high-major D1 assistant. They aren’t, most coaches agree, the sort who are going to push back on Calipari, or even offer much of a dissenting opinion. “An offensive coordinator, someone new or an NBA guy, that could help him,’’ one coach says. “So long as he listens.’’
For the past two seasons, at least, the identity has been pretty clear: get the ball to Tshiebwe. “Tshiebwe is an oak tree,’’ one coach says. Another laughed as he lamented going over and over the scout on Tshiebwe only to watch as his players did everything right and still couldn’t stop the big man. “What can you do?” he says. “Just yell, ‘Try harder.’”
But the solution to Kentucky’s offensive largesse also is part of its problem. Tshiebwe as bailout is not really an offense, and yet it’s the Wildcats’ most effective plan. “He can’t do it alone,’’ one coach says. Teams understandably are collapsing more and more defenders around Tshiebwe, but the rest of the lineup isn’t answering the call.
Coaches question whether some are good enough. Wheeler’s lack of scoring (9.1 per game) and outside shooting doesn’t make him enough of a threat to keep defenses honest, and Reeves, at least in some people’s opinions, shoots too much (he averages the same number of shots per game as Tshiebwe). They wonder if others are in the proper position. “Last year, Washington and (Kellen) Grady could stretch the floor and create lanes for guys,’’ one coach says. “But Toppin isn’t talented enough to be like a dude. He’s a decent player, but he’s not the sort of stretch four now required at the position.’’
It all adds up to a Tshiebwe-or-bust plan. “Tshiebwe is a bucket, but look at (Wednesday). Missouri had a guy who was a bucket (Kobe Brown), too,’’ one coach says. “So what do you do? You need to run good offense. You need connectedness. You need pace. I think a lot of times, he gets the ball and guys stand around to watch him operate. They aren’t cutting off the ball. That’s the thing: What do they do when he has the ball? Are they just waiting and watching? Because in the SEC, you’ve got guys who can negate Tshiebwe.”
Back when Davis won player of the year and a national title, five players averaged double figures and none more than 14.7 points per game. Doron Lamb’s ability to knock down 3s kept defenses honest on the perimeter, and Marquis Teague’s savvy in directing the loaded offense kept everyone happy. This season, Calipari has flipped the lineup repeatedly. Ware played 30 minutes against Missouri and just 14 two games ago against UCLA. Chris Livingston, conversely, scored 14 in 25 minutes against the Bruins and played just 12 against Missouri.
Navigating playing time — especially with the lure of the transfer portal — is a nuance for everyone. Keeping players happy and even more, keeping them loyal is maybe more difficult than it’s ever been. Reeves, for example, might be taking as many shots as Tshiebwe, but he’s also taking five less than he did when he was the center of the offense at Illinois State. “I don’t like the word culture,’’ one coach says. “It’s very vague. We use program. Your program is who you are academically, and what’s expected of you. Your program is how you behave socially, and it’s how you’re going to play athletically. It basically means you have a plan. For guys like Cal, it’s so hard to have a plan when you have so many moving pieces.’’
Now the big question: Can it be fixed? “Of course it can,’’ one coach says. But maybe not as easily as it used to be. The rest of the SEC has caught up to Kentucky, plenty going to the new-style ball that maybe Calipari took too long to pivot toward. The Wildcats, who once won four SEC tournament titles in a row, have not played for one since 2018.
While they missed the NCAA Tournament in 2021, six other SEC teams earned a bid. Along with that, some of the mystique has faded. No doubt they still walk into frenzied road atmospheres — evidenced at Missouri three days after Christmas — but the air of invincibility and inevitability that usually came with the sight of a Kentucky uniform is fading. “People don’t fear them,’’ one coach says. “I think they play hard for the most part. I do. But I also think Cal is trying to figure it out himself. Can he? Absolutely. Will he? That’s a different question.’’
(Top photo: Ed Zurga / Getty Images)