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Couch: Kentucky’s Calipari Is Coaching Like He’s The One Who’s Done

I’m not sure John Calipari invented the one-and-done, but he sure did perfect the art. Bringing in high school superstud basketball players not for an education, but instead for one year of vocational training toward an NBA career, and then letting them go off to make millions? He set off the entire college basketball world with that: There goes Calipari again, the rebel. Or sometimes, something harsher, like the scumbag.

He had been known mostly for his slickness, which is a nice way of saying that everyone called him a recruiting cheat. The NCAA got him a few times, forcing him to void Final Fours and even a whole season as punishment. Really, he was just a hustler in a slimy profession — he even famously told a recruit that another coach interested in signing him had terminal cancer — and he was great at it. That’s why Kentucky hired him anyway. 

I miss that John Calipari. The rebel has become the establishment now. The slicked-back, jet black hair and sprayed-on tan has been replaced by gray hair and a paunch. Rebel in a dad bod? It happens, I guess. He’s in his 60s now. But the problem is his Kentucky basketball team now plays just like he looks.

The Wildcats lost again Wednesday night, crumbling mentally in the final minutes. It was Georgia 63-62, dropping Kentucky to 4-9. The Wildcats blew a late six-point lead by standing around and thinking too much on offense. They are a good defensive team, but in crunchtime, they allowed Georgia to run fast on the left side of the basket while all five Kentucky players stared at the guy dribbling the ball. Then another Georgia player, of course, came up behind them for a pass and layup. On the game’s final play, Georgia inbounded from under the basket and Kentucky didn’t bother to guard the spot right under the hoop.

Afterward, someone asked Calipari what he says to his players after such a demoralizing finish.

“I need someone to talk to me,’’ he said, “because I’m discouraged.’’

Kentucky isn’t going to make it to the NCAA Tournament unless Calipari figures this out fast, which he won’t. This is going to be a season with a losing record, which doesn’t sit well with an insane fan base upset they haven’t been to the past four Final Fours. Of course, Calipari got them to four of the previous five, including a national championship

It’s hard to decide if he’s just having a bad year or if he’s losing his touch. But Dontaie Allen is the only player on the team who can shoot, and Calipari still doesn’t seem to want to play him. He once said that’s because he runs plays to get Allen shots and then Allen doesn’t shoot. So it’s a message. 

The fans also think he’s obsessed with player Brandon Boston, Jr., who was supposed to be another one of the typical Calipari NBA lottery picks after this season, but, uh, no.

“I want to win every game we coach,’’ Calipari said. “But the other side of it is I’m not trying to take anybody’s heart away.’’

Say what? Calipari doesn’t want to bench a guy because he doesn’t want to hurt his feelings?

You have to respect one thing: Cal is there for his players. He knelt with them during the National Anthem recently as the players made a statement for social justice after the demonstration at the Capitol. And he did that in a decidedly red state in front of fans who are already upset with him.

So he’s fighting off cancel culture now. According to The New York Times and other reports, Knox County Judge Executive Mike Mitchell told The Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky. that the university “receives millions and millions of dollars every year of hardworking Kentucky taxpayers’ money. I think they need to be held accountable for their actions if they can’t manage it better than that.’’ A local sheriff also burned Kentucky gear on Facebook.

The rebel needs to find a new cause, but that isn’t it. The Wildcats don’t have their edge, intimidation, aura or swagger. Neither does Calipari.

I really never got the fuss over one-and-dones. I always thought it was unfair that NBA rules kept 18-year-old men from starting their careers and forcing them to go to college. NBA team owners couldn’t help themselves but to draft those star high schoolers and overpay for them. Then, they’d sit on the bench making millions and sometimes wouldn’t develop. So the NBA thought those young players could play in college for a year instead, and become hugely marketed entities by playing in the NCAA Tournament first. It’s not as if the NBA was looking out for the welfare of the young men. Either way, Calipari got those men to gravitate toward him.

Has the one-and-done thing played itself out for Calipari? No. It’s that the establishment, so outraged by Calipari’s tactics, decided to copy him. Even Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the mother hen of college basketball, has done it himself. 

So Calipari has taken the nation’s top recruiting class and turned it into a loser this season. Calipari looks demoralized and unsure. With so many freshmen each year, Kentucky tends to start slow until Calipari figures it out.

So maybe that will still happen again. But I don’t think so.

Not until the rebel comes back.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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