The 2016-17 University of Kentucky Wildcats sit at 18-5 overall and 8-2 in the SEC. Looking at the win/loss percentage, things wouldn’t appear to be all that bad, but with the Wildcats losing three out of four games… it’s almost time to push the panic button. Or is it. It’s head coach John Calipari’s eighth season in Lexington and despite going to 4 Final Fours with his first seven teams, he still has plenty of doubters. Notably a lot of naysayers within the Big Blue Nation.
I’m not here to defend Coach Cal. He is compensated quite handsomely and no coach, no matter who it is, is above criticism. What I think we should do is ask ourselves, as the BBN, what should we reasonably expect from the men’s basketball team? Is it winning every game by 20+ points and winning a national championship every year? That doesn’t seem to be fair, yet that’s how a few people react after every lackluster win and, loudly, after every loss. When it comes to Calipari and his Wildcat teams, it takes some perspective to appreciate what he’s doing.
Let’s examine some of the most common complaints of John Calipari:
“He’s a good recruiter, but he can’t coach.” Ah, the ol’ ‘he just rolls the ball out’ mantra. Yes, Calipari is recruiting at a ridiculously high level. But I think that discounting his knowledge of Xs and Os is a mistake. There are times when some of his decisions baffle me (I’ll never ever understand why he slows down the tempo in big games, but there are plenty of games where you can see his coaching. Coming back against Louisville in the 2014 NCAA tournament, close wins over Notre Dame in the 2015 Tournament and both North Carolina and Ohio State in the 2011 tournament. A bad coach doesn’t win those games.
“He doesn’t care about winning and losing, only getting kids to the NBA!” I know, I know. Calipari has said some variation of his desire to change kids lives and helping reach the NBA since he got here. And I don’t doubt that’s a goal of his. That being said, if you don’t think John Calipari wants to win every single game he coaches, I’m not sure what to tell you. Of course he wants to win. If you need a coach to tell you “yes, I want to win every single game,” that says more about you than the coach.
“He loses to teams that he shouldn’t.” Well, any coach that has coached for any length of time has some head-scratching losses on his resume. It happens. Do Duke fans focus on Coach K’s first round NCAA losses to Lehigh and Mercer or to the hundreds of other wins on his ledger? What about Kansas and Bill Self? Games aren’t played on paper and sometimes, the team that is supposed to win doesn’t it happens. Adolph Rupp went 876-190 and don’t you think a few of those 190 losses were of the “huh?” variety?
“All that talent and he should have won more titles.” I agree with this one to an extent. I’d love to have seen the 2015 team complete perfection. But this argument proposes that the best/most talented team in country wins the NCAA tournament every year. Even if you ignore the randomness of a single elimination tournament, we’ve all seen talent teams get upended by Cinderellas. That’s part of the appeal of the tournament. Looking at Cal’s NCAA losses at Kentucky and except for Indiana in 2016 they were all Final Four or better: West Virginia (2010), UConn (2011), UConn (2014), Wisconsin (2015). It’s not as if the Wildcats and losing a bunch of “just happy to be there” schools.
Look, I get frustrated with losses like the next Kentucky fan. The loss to Florida this past Saturday was horrific and the effort, at time, was inexcusably bad. But it’s just one game. And even the stretch of bad basketball is just a few games of a season that is still progressing. I’m not sure what this team needs, but I’m pretty sure Calipari can figure it out. He’s 234-50 overall since he’s arrived in Lexington, an astonishing winning percentage of 82.4% and 102-26 in the SEC (.797). Only Bill Self at Kansas has more overall wins and only Coach K has more NCAA Tournament wins. He’s taken the Cats into the Tournament as a 1 seed three times and in two of the other 3 tournament runs he’s taken a 4 seed to the Final Four.
As frustrating as it is when the Wildcats do not win, it helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. Chances are John Calipari will have them ready for another deep tournament run.