LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- All you need to know about the recently ended University of Kentucky men’s basketball season is this: The Wildcats were ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press preseason poll. They failed to win 10 games during the season.
Mississippi State beat Kentucky, 74-73, in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday to end its Worst. Season. Ever.
For the first time in the event’s history, the Wildcats won’t be in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. History. That word keeps coming up. Kentucky failed to reach double-digit wins for the first time since 1927. History. They lost to Mississippi State for the first time ever under John Calipari. History.
For the first time since 1989, Kentucky did not have a first-team All-SEC player, though 5-star recruit Brandon Boston was voted to the preseason all-conference team. His stat line Thursday: 0 points on 0-4 shooting from the field, with three rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes.
This season began with all of the hype and hope expected for a Kentucky team that restocks with some of the college game’s best talent every year. But this is the year that one truth became painfully evident: Restocking the shelves is not enough.
At Kentucky, in the Calipari era, if a player has a bad game, generally somebody is there to cover his struggles, the team wins and the pressure remains reasonable. This season, multiple players struggled. The team never gelled. There were crucial breakdowns on defense. There was little structure on offense. And there was a general lack of toughness. Those were all on display in Thursday’s loss.
“My teams historically played like if they lost, they were going to the electric chair,” Calipari said after the game. “This team did not."
Afterward, Calipari didn’t want to look back. Asked by Kyle Tucker of The Athletic to venture an analysis on the season, the coach said he didn’t want to do that. He only wanted to talk about the Mississippi State game. He then went on to praise the program and administration for not having a single positive COVID-19 test all season (though it did take a 48-hour pause that cost it a game against Texas).
That dog, of course, will not hunt. Nobody is in a better position to talk about this season than Calipari, and talk he will have to do at some point. You can spin a lot of things in these tumultuous times. Going 9-16 at Kentucky is not one of them.
Even so, Thursday wasn’t the first time this season that Calipari seemed in disbelief that he was in this position.
“I’m the coach at Kentucky,” Calipari said to Tom Leach on his postgame radio interview, as if it might wake him up from a bad dream. “We can’t be in this kind of situation.”
So how were they? It should be noted Kentucky wasn’t the only college basketball blue-blood to falter in this COVID-addled season. Duke was on the wrong side of the bubble when COVID ended its season. Michigan State was headed into the ditch before a late surge.
But Kentucky had ample talent to win more than nine games. Far more. There are a great many coaches who would trade rosters with Calipari without thinking twice.
Calipari no doubt was hindered by circumstance. COVID meant that summer workouts were curtailed, and almost as important, the kind of team-building activities that allow Calipari to rebuild nearly from scratch year after year.
Calipari also referenced more than once that the team didn’t get any of the positive benefit from being at Kentucky but did have to endure all the pressure. It didn’t have 20,000 fans screaming for it in Rupp Arena or 17,000 at the SEC Tournament. It lost games that the crowd might well have influenced.
But the big benefit that players are supposed to experience at Kentucky is Calipari himself. And the coach who has seemed like a magician at throwing the right switch at the right time seemed more like the not-so Great and Powerful Oz pulling levers in vain behind the curtain as this season began to disintegrate.
“I feel bad for (the players),” Calipari said. “They did not get to experience Kentucky. You and I know, if they get up five (as Kentucky did late Thursday), 17,000 would’ve been Kentucky people ... They didn’t get to experience it. They only got to experience the other side. So this experience for them, they were cheated. But I’ll say this: They could’ve taken better advantage of the situation here, playing wise, and I wish I could have helped them more. I wish I could’ve done more, done different things.”
I think a lot of programs — especially some of the elites — are learning an important lesson this season. The trappings of their programs matter. The adoring crowds. The fawning fans. The media hype. Dick Vitale vamping. The mystique they have built.
There’s a lot of talk about how much revenue players generate for these programs, and they do. But let’s not forget whose money makes up that revenue, nor that if the fans lose interest, those millions can evaporate pretty fast. Pretty soon you’re paying a college basketball coach $1 million per victory, and hearing him say after the season that he wishes he could have done more.
I’m here to say that Kentucky had good enough players to at least be competitive in the SEC. They just didn’t mature. They did not improve. They did not play well enough together. They had enough talent. Maybe not as much talent as Calipari usually has but enough. What they lacked was leadership and development, and — let’s just acknowledge it — coaching.
Calipari is a Hall of Fame coach, so he deserves, should get and will get the benefit of the doubt that in this messed-up season, the usual strings could not be pulled or didn’t work when they were pulled. Maybe all of this conspired to thwart his own coaching style. Allowance must be made for that possibility. It’s not like it has ever happened to Calipari before.
But Kentucky’s lack of offense — and its complete lack of improvement — will stick in the minds of a fan base that knows basketball. They know what they’re seeing. They know when a team of highly-touted recruits can’t make layups that something is wrong.
And they won’t stomach it for long.
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