LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky basketball season began with John Calipari hinting that he was going to get rid of road games in traditional gyms to play in domed stadiums to get his team ready for postseason venues. He said he wanted to roll in with a big-event game and "take over a city."
In the final game of the season, he did just that.
Moon Township, Pa., was consumed with the UK visit to play Robert Morris in the NIT. They canceled classes. The overflow crowd drew the attention of fire marshals.
The Wildcats' season ended not in a domed stadium, but in a venue of 3,056 bleacher seats in a 59-57 upset loss that made instant NIT history.
This long ago ceased being the season anyone envisioned for UK, even before Nerlens Noel went down with a knee injury.
And before the autopsy is performed, this should be remembered. You have bad seasons. Great coaches have them. Great programs have them. You have injuries, recruits who don't live up to the billing, teams that don't gel. Those things happen.
But Kentucky's particular version this season showed the risk-reward of John Calipari's brand of brilliance. For the past three years, no one has been on a roll quite like Calipari and the Cats.
When it's good, it's as good as it gets. But when it wasn't good, it was downright bad. There was no middle ground for UK. One year it was the most dominant NCAA champion in a decade, the next it was losing by 30 at Tennessee, struggling to handle even mediocre SEC opponents away from home, and in the end out-toughed and tossed by Robert Morris.
Calipari, at the end, had little control over his team. He used some of his strongest language in his tenure at UK to describe the problems with this group. Even after his team clawed back to tie the game with Robert Morris, it broke down to give up a layup on an inbounds play, and when that layup didn't fall, it failed to secure the rebound and fouled. With Robert Morris laboring to score at the end of the game, it kept fouling the Colonials, even with Calipari screaming at the players in timeouts not to foul.
But while Calipari struggled to control some of his players, he never, never loses control of the narrative, and he seized it in a big way on his postgame radio program, where there could be no misunderstanding his meaning.
"What I can tell our fans, I felt there were a couple (players) that wanted to end this and I didn't fight them much," Calipari told Tom Leach on his postgame program from IMG Sports. "I'm proud of how we fought hard to get back in the game, but we shouldn't be in this position."
And then he launched in on two statements that flipped the script on what has just happened to what he expects to happen from now on.
"With what we have coming in," he said, "we're going to be fine. And I'm jacked. . . . I think what'll happen with this class is going to be kind of big. That's just the way it is. This is disappointing, but it's over now. I'm going to have individual meetings, and I told them, I'm not going to do them now because I don't want them to be emotional. But I'm going to be flat honest. We've got guys coming in, we've got guys who played a lot of minutes, it's going to be hard, you know? Competition brings out the best and the worst. In this program we didn't have enough of it this year, which meant we had to surrender to certain guys on how they wanted to play."
As he talked, he seemed to grow more defiant and more irritated.
"This is a humbling experience for me in a lot of ways and believe me I tried everything from dodge ball to everything to try to connect and I didn't," Calipari said.
The second page-turning statement came in response to a Leach question about what he might've learned going forward:
"The biggest lesson you have is you've got to have competition, we've got to have more players, you can't do it and then you get hijacked by a player or two. You get hijacked, because you think you have to play them and you don't have a choice, and then you accept what they want to give you, surrender, and now the program is -- you can't do it. That'll never happen here. We're always going to have a full complement of players. Next year we may have as many as three teams, 15 guys. . . . It was a great lesson. Our team wasn't that skilled, that was an issue. We didn't work hard enough, and weren't disciplined enough, and mainly because guys were playing too many minutes who shouldn't have been playing."
The word "hijacked" may be one of the most-discussed elements of the offseason. Unless talk of UK's recruiting class hijacks that. And with blue-chipper Julius Randle deciding today, it could do just that.
To a man, UK's freshmen, plus point guard Ryan Harrow, said they would be back next season.
To be more accurate, we should say that they hope they will be back next season.
Calipari sounded much less committed to that. When asked specifically about Harrow by reporters after the game, Calipari wouldn't say either way.
Earlier this season, when I wrote about a player potentially being squeezed out of another program around here, I wrote this statement -- talent trumps tag lines.
Whether it's a hashtag, or the words "players first," the ultimate goal is winning. No coach is going to sit around and lose.
If Calipari stocks a deep roster, it will break with it much of his historical operating procedure. His 2008 Memphis team played nine guys double-digit minutes. It also featured only one "one-and-done" type of player. But more often, Calipari has preferred to play seven guys, even during mop-up minutes. If he looks to tweak that formula, it'll be interesting to see how he can make the chemistry work.
At UK, he's been a kid in a candy store, stocking his shelves with the best groupings of NBA-type high school talent he could find, and worrying little about the rest of the roster. That's going to change, Calipari said. And it's the right move to make.
In reality, this past season was set in motion by three things: Marquis Teague not returning for a second season. He was the one UK championship freshman who wasn't seen as a first-rounder all season, but who climbed into the round with a great finish. The second thing was losing recruit Shabazz Muhammad. The third was losing recruit Anthony Bennett.
But the fact remains: Calipari still should've been able to beat a modest SEC with the talent he had in hand. When a coach speaks of being "hijacked" by a couple of players, it speaks to inflexibility, which is not something Calipari has displayed in his career.
After the loss at Robert Morris, he talked about how proud he was of Jarrod Polson and John Hood, yet Hood averaged just over 6 minutes per game, and Polson's appearances were off and on, though he averaged 13.8.
Calipari could do worse than to fill the bench with a smattering of Kentucky-bred players whose life dream is to be on that team. But he shouldn't be shy about using those guys.
In the end, one season shouldn't do much to take the sheen off Calipari's NBA preparatory resume. He's always been able to say to recruits that if they follow his direction, they'll wind up in the first round. That doesn't change just because of a handful of kids who didn't follow his direction.
Calipari's teams historically were characterized by a kind of street-toughness. They were teams nobody wanted to mess with. At UK, he's been able to hand-pick players. And in fact, he was able to dominate college basketball in 2011-12 with a bunch of nice guys.
But his 2012-13 team was marked by a distinct lack of toughness. It happens. Not only did the team fall short of expectations, but it was a failure of recruiting analysts who ranked the class so highly. And the loss of Noel can't be forgotten.
Calipari appears poised to address all this with his greatest strength -- recruiting. In fact, he already has. Even during the game, ESPN's analysts kept referencing next year's recruiting class, which is ranked No. 1 and which some call "the greatest in history."
And it is a great class. Unless it isn't. That much we all learned this season. Class worth, still, is determined on the court.
All of this underscores the difficulty of what Calipari is trying to do. People tend to roll their eyes when you talk about it, but it's true. To build from scratch every season -- even with great talent -- is difficult.
"John does a better job than any of us in the country of getting young guys and elite talent to 'buy in,'" Rick Pitino said earlier this season.
In some ways, it illustrates how good a job Calipari has done the past three seasons blending young players with existing talent on the roster.
It also illustrates that once left with his own recruits, there was little around to blend the new recruiting class with.
His message at the end of a difficult season is that he'll not have that problem again.
The message this season sends, however, is that you never know until the players hit the court.
Calipari's air of invincibility at UK has been cracked this season. But as always, rebuilding it is only a recruiting class away.
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