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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari’s expressive face clearly said question mark as he pondered one after his latest disaster – a 71-68 loss at home to 20-point underdog South Carolina on Tuesday.
“You said the season is a marathon, but is there a sense of urgency, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this thing turned,” the reporter asked, but didn’t get to finish.
“Today,” Calipari interrupted. “Today was a sense of urgency.”
The urgency alarms have been ringing since an 89-75 loss at Missouri on Dec. 28, and they exploded in a 78-52 loss at Alabama last Saturday. But on Tuesday, Big Blue Nation called 9-1-1 as the South Carolina Gamecocks (7-8 coming in) were supposed to be a warm cup of chicken soup.
Kentucky (10-6, 1-3 SEC) had the longest home winning streak in the Southeastern Conference at 28-0. South Carolina was 2-26 at Rupp Arena before Tuesday. This same South Carolina team lost this season to such powers as Colorado State by 32, George Washington by 24, Furman by 19, and UAB by 14.
The Wildcats were picked No. 4 in the Associated Press preseason poll. They are currently 13th in the 14-team SEC. They have not been 1-3 in the SEC since the 1986-87 season under coach Eddie Sutton when the Wildcats finished 18-11 and 10-8. Fans might be praying for such a finish now.
Kentucky Basketball Fans Are Mad And Should Be
“Fans are mad. They should be,” Calipari said. “We lost at home. We don’t lose at home. We lost at home, and we were down 10 at half. I expect fans to be mad. So, now we got the next one.”
That would be at No. 5 Tennessee (14-2, 4-0 SEC) on Saturday (Noon, ESPN). The Vols just beat South Carolina, 85-42, last Saturday. The Gamecocks led Kentucky, 42-32, at the half Tuesday. The Vols are an 11-point favorite.
“It’s a hard game up at Tennessee,” Calipari said. “They’re really good. All right, let’s go. Let’s see where we are. You just keep marching.”
Most Kentucky fans do not seem to be wanting to march the march. They want Calipari gone. Texas is open, and one fan at Rupp wanted to remind Calipari of that with a sign at the game Tuesday.
Kentucky fans would like to coax Villanova coach Jay Wright, 61, out of retirement. His swan song was at his fourth Final Four just last season. He won national championships in 2016 and ’18. He would not only fit the Kentucky image well, he would improve it. But he made Villanova Kentucky-like and probably does not want to return to the boiler room.
John Calipari Has Been Slipping, And Not Just This Season
Calipari, 63, has not been to the Final Four, meanwhile, since 2015, which was his fourth trip with the Wildcats. He has won only one national title with Kentucky. That was in his third year in the 2011-12 season. There were Elite Eight trips in 2010, 2017 and 2019, but Kentucky has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2019.
The Wildcats were very good just last season. But they lost to 18-point underdog and No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s by 85-79 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It should be noted, though, that Saint Peter’s beat two more teams in the tournament and reached the Elite Eight.
Still, Calipari has three major upset losses in just the last four years. Evansville was a 25-point underdog when it defeated the Wildcats, 67-64, in Rupp on Nov. 12, 2019.
And this season’s disastrous start falls just two years after the Wildcats finished 9-16 overall and 8-9 in the SEC for eighth place. That was Kentucky’s worst season since Sutton’s last year in 1988-89 when the Wildcats were 13-19 and 8-10.
And Kentucky Is Losing With Gobs Of Talent
And what really is getting at Kentucky fans is the fact that this is still a very talented team with the usual supply of five-star prospects.
Three five-star prospects started Tuesday night’s game in freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston and sophomore Daimon Collins. Wallace was the No. 3 combination guard in the class of 2022, the No. 10 overall prospect and No. 1 player from Texas out of Richardson High. Livingston was the No. 3 small forward in the nation and No. 12 overall prospect out of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. Collins was the No. 4 power forward in the country out of Atlanta, Texas, and No. 16 overall prospect.
Oh, and 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward Oscar Tshiebwe, a former four-star player from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, returned for his senior season in 2022-23 after only becoming the most decorated player in the nation and in Kentucky history last season.
Tshiebwe, who averaged 17.4 points and led the nation with 15.1 rebounds, swept all six player of the year awards a year ago, which was unprecedented in Kentucky annals. He is averaging 16 points and 13 rebounds now, but he is not getting a lot of help.
Kentucky Does Have A Couple Of Injuries
Now, Wallace – the team’s best 3-point shooter and averaging 11.6 points a game – did leave the South Carolina game early with back spasms. And senior forward Jacob Toppin (10.9 points, 6.1 rebounds) missed the South Carolina game with a shoulder injury suffered at Alabama.
“We were undermanned, but it doesn’t matter,” Calipari said. “The first half? I was just like, ‘C’mon!’ Am I happy? No, I’m not happy. I hate losing. I’ve got to be a little bit of everything with this team. I’ve got to build them up, but I still got to hold ’em accountable.”
Because there is still talent everywhere, and Calipari knows it. Senior starter Sahvir Wheeler was the No. 8 point guard in the nation out of Houston. Off the bench is junior Lance Ware, who was the No. 5 power forward in the nation out of Burlington, N.J.
Wildcats Playing ‘Timid,’ Says Oscar Tshiebwe
But they’re not defending, and they’re not playing hard – two staples of Calipari teams.
“Some of us are taking things for granted,” said Tshiebwe, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds Tuesday. “I told ’em, ‘The coaches, they cannot do it for us.’ Some of us are not ready to fight. Some of them are timid. We’ve got to be able to fight. I told them when you put on Kentucky front of you, it means a lot. We came here to chase greatness.”
Right now, Kentucky is chasing Ole Miss (8-8, 0-4) for last in the SEC.
“It sucks,” said senior guard C.J. Fredrick, who scored 14 Tuesday despite a dislocated finger suffered at Missouri. “I’m sorry. There’s just no other way to say it. This is not a good feeling. We want to win so bad. We love our fans. And there’s no worse feeling coming out and not winning at home.”
Call it unrequited love at the moment.
John Calipari Will Keep Fighting
“Goin’ nuts on people right now is not the answer,” Calipari pleaded to fans. “It’s just not. Stick with these kids. If you want to get on me, that’s fine. You know, I’m the coach. I got to look at me. I’m trying to get them in a positive mindset, because it’s hard.”
If Kentucky fires Calipari, it will have to pay him about $40 million. He is in the fourth year of a 10-year contract and making $8.5 million a year, which will jump to $9 million a year in 2025.
Kentucky fans need to remember how difficult it was the last time Kentucky tried to replace a coach who won a national championship. Billy Gillispie replaced Tubby Smith in 2007. In two years, he lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT before Calipari returned Kentucky to Kentucky.
“NIT … NIT … NIT,” the Alabama fans were chanting to Kentucky last Saturday. From the looks of things now, that would be a good season. Bad for Kentucky standards for the second time in three years, but Calipari has done enough to earn some mulligans. Get over it, Blue Nation.
“It’s hard here,” Calipari said. “I always say, this isn’t for everybody, including coaches. It’s not for everybody. I’m going to keep working, keep fighting.”
It’s too early for the NCAA Coaching Portal at Kentucky just yet. Maybe not at Tennessee Saturday, but Calipari will turn it around.