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OPINION: Enough is Enough. Is it time for change at Kentucky?

I'd like to start this off by saying that since my birth in 1989, I have been a lifelong Kentucky fan. I have been blessed to witness a lot of enjoyable years of Wildcat Basketball, as well as a handful of tough years.

My childhood years saw Rick Pitino at the helm, as he led Kentucky to dominate the Nineties with two Elite Eight finishes ('92, '95), three Final Fours ('93, '96, '97), a National Championship runner-up in '97, and one National Championship in 1996.

Tubby Smith took over for Pitino following the 1996-97 season and won a National Championship in his first season in 1998. Tubby would never reach the Final Four again, but he would still coach outstanding teams during his tenure, winning SEC Regular Season or Tournament Championships in 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005. After Tubby's departure in 2007, Billy 'Clyde' Gillespie took over for two pathetic seasons before John Calipari took over the program in 2009.

The beginning of the Coach Cal era ushered in a renewed sense of pride in Lexington. Calipari arrived at Kentucky fresh off the heels of an amazing run with Memphis; his Tigers were within a shot of winning a National Championship in 2008, following it up with a fourth consecutive 30+ win season in 2008-09. Cal brought with him a swagger that had been missing in the program for many years, which was boosted by the arrival of freshmen phenoms John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009.

With Calipari at the helm and the freshmen leading the charge, Big Blue Nation felt like we were back on top of the college basketball world. The 'Cats captured the SEC Regular Season and Conference Tournament Championships in 2010, earning a 1-Seed in the NCAA Tournament. In the tourney, Kentucky cruised to the Elite Eight before falling to 2-Seed West Virginia in a historically bad shooting performance (4/32 from 3-point range).

Despite falling short of a Final Four, that season sent a message to both Big Blue Nation and college basketball that Kentucky was back in the mix. The 2010-11 would win another SEC Tournament Championship and make it back to the Final Four, the school's first since 1998. Calipari would finally reach the summit in 2012 behind freshman sensation Anthony Davis, securing the program's 8th National Championship. 2013 was the first real disappointment of the Cal tenure as Kentucky failed to make the Tournament, losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

The next season was set to be a bounce-back year for BBN, as we had arguably one of the greatest recruiting classes in Kentucky history, led by Julius Randle, the Harrison Twins, James Young, and Trey Lyles. The 2013-14 Wildcats started the season as Preseason #1 in both the AP and Coaches' Polls. However, despite the insane amount of talent, Calipari's team struggled to find their form, finishing 22-9 in the regular season.

The 'Cats earned an 8-Seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, taking BBN on a magical March ride. They narrowly beat 9-Seed Kansas State in an instant classic in the First Round before knocking out then-unbeaten Wichita State in an instant Round of 32 classic. Aaron Harrison would propel the Wildcats with three go-ahead 3-pointers in three consecutive games to send Kentucky to their second National Championship Game in three seasons. UConn would ultimately beat Kentucky for the title, but we fans were left content heading into the summer.

The 2014-15 team may go down as the greatest team to not win a National Championship. The majority of the 2014 runners-up returned for a Sophomore season to link up with another star-studded recruiting class, featuring the likes of Karl Anthony-Towns, Devin Booker, and Tyler Ulis. This team ran through the competition en route to an undefeated regular season and made another Final Four, Cal's 4th in six seasons as Kentucky's coach.

This season is where many of us Kentucky fans first see Calipari's stubbornness rear its ugly head. Kentucky was the better team than Wisconsin, but the Badgers were a dangerous team in their own right. Bo Ryan picked on the Harrison Twins all game with his experienced guards. Tyler Ulis would give Wisconsin problems of their own, but Calipari opted for the Twins down the stretch instead of the freshman Ulis. Why? As you'll see throughout this piece, we will never understand Coach Cal's stubbornness.

From 2016 to 2019, Kentucky brought in several more star freshman classes, but made only one Elite Eight in that span. The path to the Final Four was open several times, but lack of free-throw shooting, poor defensive rebounding, or weird substitution patterns doomed the Cats year after year. The frustration was beginning to mount from Big Blue Nation at the perceived failures in March.

Calipari Era (Post Covid)

The 2019-20 team was a ton of fun to watch as both a fan and analyst. The Cats had an elite guard trio in Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, and Tyrese Maxey who could all play point, play defense, and score the basketball. Kentucky finished the season winning nine of their last ten games en route to another 25-win season. Unfortunately, the world stopped in March 2020 due to Covid-19, canceling the Conference and NCAA Tournaments. Many of us believed Kentucky to be amongst the favorites to cut the nets down that season. That was a real bummer.

2020-21 was a historically bad Kentucky team, finishing 9-16 on the year, including losing streaks of six, four, three, and two. Temperature levels in the fanbase went from cool to hot.

The 2021-22 season cooled the angst a bit, as Calipari had gone all in on the transfer portal. Oscar Tshiebwe transferred in from West Virginia and put up one of the best individual seasons in recent college basketball history, winning the Naismith Player of the Year. Kentucky went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse in late January and smacked around Kansas for 40 minutes; a sign to all of BBN that the "REAL" Kentucky had returned.

However, things quickly came crashing down again in March. Kentucky entered the Tournament as a 2-Seed and would take the program's most embarrassing loss ever, an 85-79 OT loss to 15-Seed Saint Peter's in the First Round. The Peacocks used small ball tactics to exploit mismatches and Calipari never adjusted his defensive tactics, nor did he run a modern offense. Temperatures were now boiling inside Big Blue Nation.

Last season, Oscar Tshiebwe returned and hope was high once more. That feeling wouldn't last long, though, as Kentucky lost to Michigan State in the Champions Classic, 86-77 in double OT. The 'Cats had multiple opportunities to win the game, but end-of-game scenarios once again plagued them. Kentucky would continue to struggle in defending ball screens all season and continued to run an outdated offense relying on two bigs on the blocks, clogging space for driving lanes.

Calipari's team flirted with missing another NCAAT for most of the season before stringing together enough wins late to make it into the field of 68. Kansas State knocked them out in the Round of 32 behind electric guard a modern offense. Heat check in BBN shows that we now moved from boiling to enraged.

This season was supposed to be different from the others, as Calipari had seemingly learned to adapt to modern offenses by bringing in more shooters, as well as assistant coach John Welch, who would help facilitate this new ideology. Kentucky is full of young, talented freshmen who can score at a ridiculous pace, plus veterans in Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell who bring experience and consistent shooting as well.

The Wildcats lost to #1 Kansas early, but led with four minutes to go in an 89-84 thriller. There are no moral victories as a Kentucky fan, but we felt pleased despite the loss thanks to the effort without any of our seven-footers available. The loss to UNC Wilmington at home was excused by not having DJ Wagner. The loss in overtime at Texas A&M was excused by having young guys on the road, despite poor end-of-game execution again.

The loss at South Carolina was concerning because of how the Gamecocks dominated physically, but again, was excused as "winning on the road is hard". The loss at home to Florida was when the excuses from BBN stopped. Kentucky led by three points with 5 seconds left, and Cal didn't foul, ultimately leading to the game-tying three from Walter Clayton Jr. Tennessee never trailed in Rupp Arena, physically outclassing Kentucky. Gonzaga ran the same middle pick-and-roll, posting up on the low block to win, and Calipari NEVER adjusted defensively again. It's unacceptable!

End of an era?

From his arrival in the 2009-10 season, to Covid shutting down the whole world, it could be argued that Calipari's run at Kentucky is one of the best ever from one coach at one program; four Final Fours, three Elite Eights, one Sweet Sixteen appearance, and a record of 331-77.

Beginning with the refusal to play Tyler Ulis in the Wisconsin loss in 2015, to not trying to change up defenses to help this year's team, Calipari being stubborn is a major reason for the lack of success by Kentucky's standards in the past decade. This year's team is a historic offense in terms of points per game (89.5), three-point shooting (41%), not turning the ball over(9.8 per game), and overall style of play. The defense, however, ranks 125th nationally via, and Cal stays committed to playing man-to-man defense. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. It's insane to keep trying to have this team play man defense for 40 minutes when they give up over 90 points per game. Scott Drew, Bill Self, or any of Calipari's other contemporaries in the coaching world would've already switched to a zone, but not Cal.

As a lifelong Kentucky fan, I will always cheer for the Cats and hope John figures this thing out. I'll always appreciate him for those incredible years and for bringing Kentucky back from the dead, but as fun as those times were, these past few years are equally embarrassing. He now holds the honor of the worst loss, the worst season, and the first-ever three-game losing streak in Rupp Arena. Getting rid of him won't be easy with a buy-out set at $33 million, but unless this season gets turned around and ends with a March run, it's time to start a new chapter in the glorious book of Kentucky Basketball, with fresh blood on the sidelines leading the Wildcats I love so much.


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