With a 69-62 win over top ranked Michigan State on Tuesday, John Calipari’s second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats will most assuredly move to the #1 spot in the AP men’s basketball poll. This isn’t new territory for either Calipari or the Kentucky program and the ranking will become a footnote in the broader story of the 2019-20 Wildcats’ pursuit of the school’s 9th NCAA title. With the win over the Spartans, Coach Cal improved his record to 6-4 when taking on the AP’s #1 ranked team, making him the only coach in NCAA history with a winning record in such games (minimum of 10 games coached). When this factoid made its way around social media, the response was typical. If you love Calipari, it’s a good thing; if you don’t, then it’s somehow a measure of how bad of a coach he really is. The way the sports landscape is (and just about everything else), nuance is lost among hard lines and hot takes.
Despite winning more NCAA tournament games, reaching more Elite Eights than any team and appearing in more Final Fours than any team over the last decade, a lot of folks are still clinging to the notion that Coach Cal can’t coach. Somehow, despite his success at Kentucky and Memphis and UMASS, he simply assembles talent and just “rolls out the ball” and his teams succeed despite his coaching rather than because of him. To be fair, I think there’s a discussion to be had that Calipari should have one more title on his Kentucky resume. There’s a big area between “not enough titles” and “the guy can’t coach.” Like most of the world we live in, this isn’t black and white… it’s nuanced.
Much like the debate in NBA circles on who the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) is, if you’re a LeBron fan it HAS to be LeBron and if you’re an MJ guy it HAS to be MJ), the talking points on the John Calipari debate has been the same for a long time. And similarly, neither side is budging on their deeply held beliefs. Detractors of Coach Cal point to all the talent he’s amassed, particularly at Kentucky, and say he should have more than one title. What that point does is underestimate a few things. Firstly, winning an NCAA title in a single-elimination tournament is very difficult. For all the good aspects of the One Shining Moment nature of the NCAA tournament, it is a very poor way to choose a champion and often the best team doesn’t necessarily win. Secondly, John Calipari isn’t alone in being a coach to have a team that, in retrospect, you have to wonder: how did that team NOT win?
Every coach in the basketball hall of fame has at the very least 3-5 teams that fit the criteria of “how did that team not win the NCAA title?” Every single coach, if there were being honest, could tell you about a team that they had that entered March with everything rolling only to stumble along the way and not win. The fact that Coach Cal has such teams, doesn’t make him an anomaly, it makes him like every coach that is in the national championship conversation year in and year out. 10 years and I’d argue that there are only two NCAA loses that I would even begin to consider head-scratching: Indiana in 2016 and Kansas State in 2018. In six seasons, Kentucky has lost to a team that at least reached the Final Four (2010, 11, 14, 15, 17, 19) and three times lost to the NCAA champion (2011, 14, 17). Certainly, UK was favored in most of those matchups, but it’s also fair to say that if a team makes it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, they’re playing pretty good basketball. Yet, this notion of Kentucky and Cal flaming out against dreadful teams persists.
This isn’t to say that John Calipari is flawless. If you follow my Twitter feed during a Kentucky game, I second guess Coach Cal in real time. He does make mistakes, mistakes that cost his team games. Again, that doesn’t make him an outlier, it makes him a college basketball coach. The complaints about Calipari, both within and outside of the Big Blue Nation, at this point aren’t new. Yes, he uses the One and Done setup to his advantage during recruiting which leads to annual roster turnover. Calipari talks a lot about a lot of different things and is prone to hyperbole. Cal is a self-promoter. All those things were true in 2009, yet we’re still arguing about them in 2019. But to classify Calipari’s decade as anything other than a success is disingenuous at best and ridiculously obstinate at worst. He’s not perfect, no coach is. And every single coach that’s had a measure of success in NCAA men’s hoops has left titles on the table.
As the Cats start off the season with a big time win and are poised to, once again, make a deep tournament run, consider that some of the complaints about John Calipari just haven’t aged well. Every time he puts another coaching achievement on his resume, it’s because he’s actually a very good coach. Consider that, despite all his bluster and self-promotion, he might actually know what he’s doing. He’s not perfect, but neither are the decade-old complaints. As we turn the corner on (hopefully) Calipari’s second decade in Lexington, it’s time to retire some of those old complaints. I’m sure if you search hard enough, you can find something else to focus on. Otherwise, it’s the same stuff with a different timestamp on your social media posts.