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Appreciate what the Calipari era has been, not just what it looks like in 2020-21

The sky is officially falling in Lexington, Kentucky. 

With just over two seconds left to play, a deep, contested albeit unobstructed Kentucky three-pointer from the right baseline, clanked off the basket. As a result, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats concluded the 2020 portion of their pandemic-altered regular season schedule with a 62-59 loss in the Battle of the Bluegrass against in-state rivals Louisville on Saturday at the Yum! Center.  

Rivalry games have the ability to rejuvenate and refocus a sputtering squad. A road win in Louisville on December 26, could have been exactly what the doctor ordered to get the Wildcats’ season back on track after just seven games. However, the loss only makes what was already a historically bad start to the season even worse for the Big Blue Nation faithful.  

With the defeat, Kentucky has now lost six in a row. Sitting at 1-6 on the year, the Wildcats have now had their worst start to a season since 1926 and 1911 respectively (both seasons started 1-6). This is just the third time in program history that the Wildcats have recorded a 1-6 beginning to the season. 

To make matters worse, this marked coach Chris Mack’s first victory against Kentucky as Louisville’s head coach and snapped the Cardinals three-game skid to their rival.

The loss also handed Kentucky its first six-game losing streak since the 1988-89 season.

While the 2020-21 season is barely a month old, the fate of the Wildcats may already be sealed as far as postseason play is concerned. 

Following Saturday’s narrow defeat, ESPN’s Jeff Borzello pointed out that no team has ever started 1-6 and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Not surprisingly, Calipari’s outlook on the remainder of the season isn’t quite as bleak. 

“I don’t believe it’s over,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said following the loss. “We haven’t played a league game yet. Let’s go do what we do … I’m not budging, I’m not cracking.”

Only time will tell how the remainder of the season shakes out for the Blue & White, but one thing is for certain: Kentucky is a far cry from its dominant easy season-opening victory over Morehead State in late November at Rupp Arena. In that contest, the only one the Wildcats have won thus far, the final score ended up being 81-45, and wasn’t even as close as the score indicated.

In the opener, Kentucky’s talent-laden No. 1 2020 recruiting class lived up to hype, accounting for 57 of the Wildcats’ 81 points. Transfers Olivier Sarr, Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin also contributed in big ways as well.

Postgame Calipari even praised his guys saying, “We look like an organized basketball team.” Although Calipari’s compliment may not sound complementary, it was meant to be. 

After all, eight of the nine players who scored a point in a game last season are gone. Additionally, nine new scholarship players have joined the team and have the rather arduous task of replacing that production, including seven true freshmen.

With such high roster turnover from one season to the next, plus limited practice time due to COVID-19 protocols and restrictions, getting a highly inexperienced Kentucky team to play “organized basketball” on opening night is about as good as can be expected. 

My how the tides have taken a drastic turn in just one month. Not only have the Wildcats dropped six straight games, but also coach Cal asked his star freshman forward Cam’Ron Fletcher to step away from the team to “reflect and do some soul searching to get his priorities in order,” according to Calipari. 

“Any attitude or actions that are detrimental to this team will not be tolerated — and that goes for everyone on the team,” Calipari continued.

Fletcher was seen crying on the bench and visibly upset during Kentucky’s eventual 75-63 loss to North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday December 19. Calipari said that his star forward was disgruntled over playing time, or lack thereof. 

“You’ve got to accept your position on this team, whatever minutes you get,” Calipari said after the loss to the Tar Heels. “Cam was mad he didn’t play more. And I’m like, ‘The guys in front of you are playing.’ Lance played out of his mind. I thought Devin played better. Cam came in and apologized after, but they don’t understand that with four minutes to go, we have a chance to win the game and you cop an attitude, it’s the immaturity of that.”

Ten days later, Fletcher has rejoined his teammates. After a 10-day hiatus from the court, Fletcher and the rest of the Wildcats will look to bring their historic losing skid to a close Saturday January 2, when Kentucky begins conference play against Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville (Kentucky’s original SEC opener vs. South Carolina on Dec. 29 was postponed due to COVID-19 issues).

Statistically speaking, Kentucky has been woeful. They’re missing shots, turning the ball over, not playing defense and giving up leads, and more.  

According to Jack Pilgrim of KentuckySportsRadio.com, UK ranks top-100 nationally in just three total categories: blocked shots, three-point defense and rebounding margin. Outside of that, Kentucky is No. 200 or worse in nine different categories and No. 300 or worse in two, including No. 320 in three-point field goal percentage. And that’s out of 328 total teams playing college basketball. (Note: These figures are through the first six games and do not include their loss to Louisville). 

So, with Kentucky in clear disarray both on and off the court, the obvious question must be asked: 

Is it time to hit the panic button in Lexington?

The truth is, the answer to that question isn’t so simple. 

Few can deny that Calipari is an elite college basketball coach. He has taken the UK program to extraordinary heights, just look at what he has accomplished:

During Calipari’s 11 seasons at UK, Kentucky owns more NCAA Tournament wins (31), Final Four appearances (four), Elite Eight berths (seven) and Sweet 16 showings (eight) than any other school. He’s won six SEC Tournament titles (and appeared in eight of 10 possible title games) and won six SEC regular-season championships.

That said, if you are a member of Big Blue Nation who has grown to expect these title-worthy and conference-worthy finishes year after year, then yes, you should hit the panic button because UK will not be elite in 2021, they may even miss the postseason play entirely. 

But, as Calipari has intimated numerous times, he doesn’t coach to win championships, he doesn’t coach for the money (although he is compensated handsomely at $9.27M per year), he ultimately coaches to help young men achieve their ultimate dream of playing professional basketball in the NBA. Should Calipari win some conference or national championships along the way, that is merely a bonus. 

To this point, in what has been a truly unprecedented year for college and professional ball players alike, the one fact that holds constant in the professional ranks: No other program prepares its players for the NBA quite like Kentucky.

As of last week, when the 2020-21 NBA season tipped off, an immensely impressive 31 players on NBA opening-day rosters (including two-way and inactive lists) played and finished their college basketball careers at Kentucky.

These 31 former Wildcats underscore the fact that no other school in the country can match UK’s ability to develop players and put them in the NBA, UK’s 31 players are once again the most of any college basketball program, beating the next-closest school (Duke with 26) by five players.
 
The list was compiled from the NBA’s official opening-day roster list (PDF).
 
Of the 495 players in the NBA to start the 2020-21 season, 6.3% played and finished their college basketball careers at UK. There are actually fewer teams without a Wildcat (12) than there are NBA teams featuring Wildcats (18).

Simply put, Calipari’s ability to get college hoopers to the next level is otherworldly and I would argue that no one is better at grooming you for the NBA than John Calipari. 

With this in mind, it is important to evaluate coach Calipari and the Wildcats for the sustained success they have had over the Calipari tenure – both on the court in Rupp Arena and at the next level in the NBA – rather than their success (or lack thereof) in 2020-21 alone. 

While UK isn’t where it wants to be now, they still have nearly 20 games left to play, including a full slate of SEC action. While they may miss the 2021 postseason in what has been an uncharacteristically bad year for a powerhouse program, Kentucky has a very NBA friendly class and will likely see two or three more Wildcats take the jump to the NBA in 2021. 

At the end of the day, it may be disheartening for fans to watch as Wildcat losses pile up, but Calipari is doing what he does best, developing NCAA talent into NBA talent in under a year. 

This season is no different.

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