Only three days after the Alabama student section gleefully taunted him with chants of “Cal to Texas,” John Calipari suffered an even worse indignity.
This time it was a Kentucky fan urging him to take the Longhorns job.
WKYT’s Samantha Valentino captured video of a man with a sign that read, “Please go to Texas,” being escorted out of Rupp Arena on Tuesday night during Kentucky’s stunning 71-68 loss to struggling South Carolina. The man chose to leave the arena rather than relinquishing his sign referencing speculation that Calipari could emerge as a candidate to coach Texas next season.
The incident reflects the mounting concern throughout Big Blue Nation that Calipari is no longer the right man for college basketball’s most high-profile job. Sports talk radio, social media and Kentucky fan forums are overrun with dissatisfaction over Calipari’s seven-plus-season Final Four drought and his underwhelming recent body of work.
Two years ago, Kentucky staggered through its worst season in almost a century, going from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 face plant. Last year, the Wildcats endured their worst NCAA tournament loss in program history, squandering a 26-win season with a spectacular flop against lightly regarded Saint Peter’s.
The 2022-23 preseason top-five team was supposed to stack up victories and restore order, so its underachievement has only ratcheted up the pressure on Calipari. Despite the presence of the reigning national player of the year, a pair of Rivals top 15 freshmen and a handful of accomplished veterans, Kentucky has performed more like a team that would be lucky to make the NIT than one with national title aspirations.
As of Tuesday, there are 86 college basketball teams that have posted at least one quadrant 1 victory this season. Remarkably, Kentucky isn’t one of them. The Wildcats (10-6, 1-3 SEC) have lost to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, Missouri and Alabama by an average of 15 points. The closest they’ve come to a résumé-boosting victory is a tight win over six-loss Michigan in London in early December.
Until Tuesday, Kentucky at least could claim it didn’t have a bad loss. Now the Wildcats have one that will weigh down their résumé like an anchor. South Carolina (8-8) should have been a get-right opponent. The Gamecocks fell by 32 to Colorado State, by 24 to George Washington and by 19 to Furman. In their previous game before facing Kentucky, they hosted Tennessee and lost 85-42.
Instead of coming out with something to prove after getting embarrassed by Alabama last Saturday afternoon, Kentucky fell behind South Carolina 13-2. Not until the Wildcats trailed by 11 with less than four minutes to play did they appear to finally grasp the urgency of the situation and play with the edge they had been lacking.
Speaking with reporters in Lexington after the game, Oscar Tshiebwe repeatedly questioned whether his teammates showed enough “fight.” Tshiebwe, the reigning player of the year, said he urged Calipari to give the team’s walk-ons a chance if the starters weren’t going to play with the necessary effort to win.
“If somebody is not willing to fight to give what we need, I’m gonna ask Coach to put him on the bench,” Tshiebwe said. “If we’re gonna lose with the people who are fighting, even the walk-ons, we’re gonna lose with them, but at least we’re fighting.”
Of course sporadic effort alone wasn’t Kentucky’s only problem Tuesday night. Nor were injuries a sufficient excuse. Kentucky was without starting forward Jacob Toppin (shoulder) and lost starting guard Cason Wallace early in the game to back spasms, but the Wildcats had plenty of remaining firepower to outclass South Carolina.
A huge reason Kentucky failed was that its offensive approach was as disjointed and antiquated as ever.
Calipari’s starting five featured a pair of paint-clogging big men and a point guard who is more comfortable attacking the rim than shooting from distance. Kentucky didn’t attempt a 3-pointer until more than 10 minutes into the first half. The Wildcats didn’t connect from behind the arc until four minutes into the second half and didn’t sink a second one until the game’s final four minutes. When Kentucky isn’t getting out in transition or overwhelming opponents on the offensive glass, the Wildcats typically struggle to string together baskets.
Tshiebwe’s struggles defending ball screens also hurt. Opponents will keep forcing the 6-foot-9 center to stay in front of guards in space and make quick decisions until he proves he can do it.
In his postgame news conference, Calipari preached patience and insisted he still believes “this team can be good.”
“This is a long season,” he said over and over. “It’s a marathon.”
As Calipari points out, there is time for Kentucky to make necessary adjustments and salvage this season, but so far the Wildcats have offered scant evidence they’re capable of a second-half surge. Awaiting Kentucky on Saturday in Knoxville is fifth-ranked Tennessee and its smothering defense. That means it’s likely to get worse for the Wildcats before it gets better.
KenPom now projects that Kentucky will finish 17-14 overall and 8-10 in the SEC, which almost certainly would leave the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. That’s a scenario university officials could not possibly have foreseen in March 2019 when they awarded Calipari a massive 10-year, $86 million contract.
It’s difficult to imagine Kentucky firing Calipari without cause after this season because the school reportedly would owe him a $40 million buyout. Even for an SEC school, that’s a huge sum to pay a Hall of Fame coach to go away.
More plausible but still unlikely is Calipari electing to step away on his own to take the Texas job or to coach at another high-profile program. Does Calipari really want to start fresh at age 63? And, given Calipari’s recent struggles, would the Longhorns or another suitor still be willing to pay the $8 million per year it would take to lure him from Lexington?
The most realistic scenario is Calipari remaining at Kentucky beyond this season. He may no longer be the right coach for college basketball’s most high-profile job, but like it or not, Big Blue Nation may be stuck with him for a little while longer.