The 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team has to make it to the 2019 NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis. At the very least, head Coach John Calipari has to have his Wildcats competing in the national semifinal. Another non-Final Four season and the fan base could officially split. The unthinkable could happen: a big minority of fans could turn on Coach Cal and turn what was once one of the best coach-fan base relationships in all of college sport to one where there are sides to be taken.
When John Calipari is no longer coaching UK men’s hoops and his full run in Lexington is going be dissected in its entirety, the turning point where he went from program savior to just another coach can be pinpointed with exact accuracy: April 4, 2015. Cal’s 2014-15 team had won its first 38 games. Those Cats won big, they won close games, they had won them all. The Big Blue Platoon embarrassed bluebloods Kansas (72-40) and UCLA (83-44, the halftime score being 41-7). Rivals North Carolina (84-70) and Louisville (58-50) were handled before Kentucky marched through the SEC unscathed, the first undefeated SEC season since Tubby Smith’s underrated 2002-03 Wildcat team did it. As we all know, the Cats lost to Wisconsin on that Saturday in April 71-64. Obviously, losing in the Final Four is always hard, but two wins from history? For that, a chunk of the BBN will never let John Calipari off the hook.
The next year, the 2015-16 Wildcats had arguably one of the best backcourt duos to ever wear Blue and White. Sophomore Tyler Ulis, the Point Gawd, was otherworldly. Ulis was an All American (1st team), All SEC, SEC Player and SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was on the all SEC Tournament team. Freshman Jamal Murray was an All American (3rd team), All SEC, All SEC Freshman and on the All SEC Tournament team. Murray’s season total of 720 points is the ninth most in school history and was the most ever by a UK freshman (Malik Monk broke it the next season). The frontcourt, however, was an issue for that squad. With no consistent bigs, the Ulis/Murray backcourt had to shoulder the offensive load. And they delivered a 27-9 record, an SEC regular season championship (tied with Texas A&M) and an SEC tournament title (over Texas A&M). But, a second round loss to hated Indiana ended the Cat’s tournament run.
The first year without a Final Four.
Like there always is, there was a roster overhaul for 2016-17. With Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, Coach Calipari’s bunch finished 32-6, winning the SEC regular and tournament championships. Fox gave UK its first triple-double in over 30 years, with Isaiah Briscoe also getting one. The Cats defeated #13 Michigan State 69-48. And in one of the most electrifying games ever, Monk scored 47 points in a Kentucky 103-100 win over North Carolina. The Cats advanced to the Elite Eight with a 86-75 win over UCLA and Lonzo Ball to avenge an earlier loss behind Fox’s 39 points. However, Kentucky would fall to eventual national champion North Carolina on a last second shot in the Elite Eight.
Year 2 without a Final Four
The 2017-18 Wildcats will go down as proof that John Calipari had lost his fastball and the sine had come off his program. A program that made it to 4 Final Fours in five seasons lost double digit games, including a midseason 4 game losing streak. A malaise fell over the BBN. The games weren’t fun. The Cats weren’t winning and a philosophy that had made those four banners that are hanging up in the rafters of Rupp Arena possible was no longer sustainable. Despite the fact that Calipari had righted the ship of his young team and guided them to yet another SEC tournament title, the loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 was proof that the program was in trouble. The mojo was gone. How could call save the program and perhaps his legacy?
The third season without a Final Four.
John Calipari is not a perfect coach. He’s made more than a few head-scratching decisions that I have questioned, not in hindsight, but in real time. I think it’s absolutely fair to say that Coach Cal should have more than one title on his Kentucky resume. The thing is: you can say that about every high level coach that’s accomplished anything. Coach K went to 8 Final Fours before winning one. You think that maybe one or two of those teams should have won a title? Roy Williams seemingly went 31-3 every year at Kansas and never cut down the nets. Dean Smith had Michael Jordan on campus for three seasons and only got a title out of the loaded 1982 team. Even John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, didn’t win every single title. No matter the coach, the fact remains that you simply can’t win them all, no matter how talented your roster is.
Has the program taken a step back since the 2015 Final Four? A vocal minority would say yes. Social media is rife with opinions that Calipari lost his mojo, as if someone came and took it like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers’ films. While still pulling in top 3-5 recruiting classes, Cal hasn’t been able to pull in the top guy since Nerlens Noel. Is it time to panic? I’d say no. I’d say that the list of coaches that took teams to 4 Final Fours in 5 years is just Wooden, Coach K and Calipari that it’s a feat that we should recognize for its high degree of difficulty. I’d say that these types of dips happen, that no program can be elite for more than five years. Not even Kentucky.
I trust John Calipari to get things back to that ultra elite level. I saw what he did at UMASS. I saw what he did at Memphis. I have personally witnessed what he’s done in Lexington, so I have no doubt that he can return Kentucky to its greatness of three completed season ago. But if he doesn’t get this current team to the Final Four, John Calipari will have and even more strained relationship with the vocal section of the fan base. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it just is. Cal speaks often of his process and how the end, usually a deep tournament run, justifies the means. If he wants to keep selling that, he’s going to have to get this team to Minneapolis.