Every time the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team loses in the NCAA tournament, everyone grabs their equipment to perform an autopsy. There’s blame that must be laid at someone’s feet. Folks from within and without of the Big Blue Nation demand answers. As usual, there are some national sportswriters that have an axe to grind with head coach John Calipari and/or the University of Kentucky, so the hot takes coming flying as soon as the Wildcats’ season ends. The only problem is: there’s nothing left to debate and all nuance has left the discussion.
Here are the facts: since John Calipari arrived in Lexington, the Cats lead the NCAA in the following categories: Overall wins, NCAA wins, Elite Eight and Final Four appearances. Those facts are not debatable. With only one NCAA title to show for it, this is where the facts can be used to bolster your argument, no matter which side you sit on. Is Coach Cal over or underachieving?
The lazy way of thinking goes something like this “with all those top recruits, he should win every year!” The fallacy in that is there’s more to roster construction than just throwing a bunch of top recruits together and hoping for the best. By his own plan, Calipari restarts every year with a basically entire new roster and has to figure out how to get talented players to play together and maximize their individual potential within the team framework and do it while under the hottest glare in college basketball. I understand that rival fans will say that’s what he asked for, and that’s true, but that doesn’t mitigate the difficulty of what Calipari is doing year in and year out.
The fact that the Calipari way has only produced one title is the lighting rod for the debate. Every title-less year inevitably leads to article after article regarding the potency of his method. Pundits opine that experience trumps talent, despite the fact that over John Calipari’s tenure Kentucky has defeated veteran teams in the NCAA tourney with his youthful talent: Ohio State and North Carolina in 2011, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan in 2014 and even this year Kentucky defeated Houston in the Sweet 16 round by closing on a 7-0 run as the Cougars played three seniors and a junior in crunch time. When you speak only in absolutes, it doesn’t leave a lot of gray area.
The national guys that dump on Coach Cal have the same methodology. 1) he hasn’t been to a Final Four in four seasons. And when you respond that Duke and Coach K have also been without a Final Four over the same stretch, they then say 2) Well, Coach K has five NCAA titles, so he’s a better coach. When you move the goalposts in your argument, I think you use some credibility. If recruiting in just one and done players is the Cal way and Duke is now doing it, how is Calipari a failure and Coach K isn’t, even though over the last four years (especially this year) the Blue Devils have had more talent?
And that’s where we are. We cannot have a normal discussion about John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. Like the MJ/LeBron “GOAT” debate, both sides are really locked into seeing the same facts completely differently. Does 4 years without a Final Four prove that Calipari is a failure? If so, what do the previous six years with 4 Final Fours, a NCAA runnerup and NCAA title show? Why does Virginia’s Final Four this season prove Tony Bennett’s way works even though we all saw the loss to UMBCin the 2018 tournament? Again, I’m a Kentucky fan. I want the Cats to win a title every year. But the reality is, you can’t win every year. The NCAA tournament, as constituted in 2019, is not made for extended Final Four runs and I don’t think it’s accepting mediocrity to look at John Calipari’s Kentucky resume and feel really good about it.
So, John Calipari is in a situation where he can’t win nationally. He could win three out of the next four NCAA titles and there will still be whispers that he should have more. There will still be claims that he always loses to inferior teams (5 times UK was eliminated by a Final Four team, 3 times by the eventual champion). On Monday, it was announced that Coach Cal and UK had agreed to a lifetime contract. Both sides agreeing that the first 10 years have been pretty good together. And if Calipari can repeat the same performance over the next ten? Well, that would be fine by me. I like my team. I like my coach.