Big Blue Blunder: Kentucky is taking a step backward by keeping John Calipari

Days after another early exit from the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced that head coach John Calipari would be back for another season. Here's why that's a major mistake.

John Calipari no longer knows how to get Kentucky pointed in the right direction
John Calipari no longer knows how to get Kentucky pointed in the right direction / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

What has happened to the Kentucky Wildcats? One of the very best programs in college basketball history, a true blue blood if there ever was one, just got knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Oakland University, and the worst part about it is that it wasn't much of a surprise.

Talent certainly isn't the problem in Lexington, not with players like Antonio Reeves, Reed Sheppard, and Rob Dillingham on the roster, but this is what Kentucky basketball has become under John Calipari: a waypoint for talented players on their way to a lengthy and productive NBA career. That's all well and good for the Devin Bookers and Shai Gilgeous-Alexanders of the world, but for Big Blue Nation, only one thing matters: hanging more banners in Rupp Arena.

Calipari has hung one of those banners before, but the 2012 Anthony Davis-led title team is but a distant memory at this point, and a reminder of how painfully short the program has fallen since it seemed like Calipari had the college basketball world at his feet.

Three of the 15 members of last year's All-NBA teams played their college ball at Kentucky: Gilgeous-Alexander, De'Aaron Fox, and Julius Randle. Three others (Davis, Booker, and Bam Adebayo) received votes. Calipari has long placed his players' NBA success front and center, and for good reason. If you were a five-star high school player, wouldn't you want to go to the same place, and play for the same coach, that produced seven members of this year's NBA All-Star team?

Kentucky is too proud a program to be just an NBA stepping stone

The short-lived presence of these talented players at UK has done little to restore Kentucky's position among the game's elite programs. Since Kentucky's last Final Four in 2015, here's what other blue bloods have achieved:

Duke: One national championship, one Final Four, and two Elite Eights

Kansas: One national championship, one Final Four, and two Elite Eights

North Carolina: One national championship and two national runners-up finishes

Duke and North Carolina are still alive in this year's tournament. UConn has won two titles since 2015, and is favored to win another one this year. Kentucky isn't even the best team named the Wildcats in the country, as Villanova has two titles in that time frame, and Arizona has been consistently better since Tommy Lloyd took over.

Being considered a blue blood is no guarantee of future success. Just ask Indiana, which hasn't even made an Elite Eight since it lost the national title game to Maryland in 2002. Or UCLA, which (this year notwithstanding) has righted the ship under Mick Cronin but has still reached just one Final Four since 2008. Gonzaga, which has won both games against Kentucky since announcing a six-year series in 2022, just reached its ninth consecutive Sweet 16.

What's wrong with John Calipari and Kentucky?

Calipari was a trendsetter at the outset of the one-and-done era, but having a revolving door of talented freshmen is no longer a viable pathway to sustained excellence, if it ever was in the first place. Mike Krzyzewski and Duke took Calipari's model and evolved it, beating Cal to the punch for many top recruits in recent years, while layering in reliable upperclassmen for a better team fit. The results have spoken for themselves, and while Duke has remained at or near the top of the college basketball world, Kentucky has been left behind.

Just as the triple option has been all but eradicated at the top level of college football, or the triangle offense hasn't been used to great effect in the NBA since the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal Lakers, Calipari's one-and-done approach to college basketball has been beaten into obsolescence. They don't hang banners for No. 1 draft picks.

That Calipari hasn't been able to turn such an abundance of talent into postseason success is a damning indictment of him as a coach, especially since he's had more than just freshmen to work with. He coached Wooden Award winner Oscar Tschiebwe for two years and never made it to the tournament's second weekend, and in addition to the players mentioned earlier, he's also coached Jamal Murray, Malik Monk, PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, and Tyrese Maxey since 2016, yet reached zero Final Fours in that time.

Why John Calipari isn't the right fit for Big Blue Nation

There's not much evidence at this point that Calipari is anything more than one of the best recruiters in college basketball history. Kentucky had one of the worst defenses of any tournament team this year, a fact that was readily apparent against Oakland. The Wildcats allowed Jack Gohlke to destroy them with 10 made threes, and Calipari failed to make an adjustment to slow him down. If not for Antonio Reeves playing a heroic game, the final score wouldn't have even been close. Worse yet, Calipari's other two best players, Sheppard and Dillingham, inexplicably spent much of the season coming off of the bench.

Many have cited Calipari's lifetime contract and onerous buyout as reasons that Kentucky can't cut the cord. The idea that Kentucky boosters couldn't get $35 million together is laughable. We're talking about the most passionate fanbase in college basketball. Money is no object if it means putting the best product on the court.

Why is Kentucky afraid to fire John Calipari?

There's a fear of the unknown if Calipari were to be fired, and I get that. UNC had to get through the Matt Doherty era before it convinced Roy Williams to come home. Indiana is still searching for the next Bob Knight. Even the Wildcats themselves had to suffer through two years of Billy Gillespie after losing Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith.

When you're one of the top two or three jobs in the country, you don't worry about the unknown. Kentucky could have its pick of nearly any coach in college basketball if Cal was shown the door. If you don't trust your administration to find the right guy when almost literally everyone is available to you, then what are we even doing here? It might take one hire, it might take two, but Kentucky wouldn't be down for long. Besides, after zero Sweet 16s in the last five years under Calipari, would you even be able to tell the difference?