John Calipari has proven he can coach winners. Coming off two disappointing seasons, Kentucky has put a lot of money in his hands to bring his talent to Lexington and restore its program to its glory days.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats will begin to see if making Calipari the highest-paid coach in college basketball pays off when they host Morehead State on Friday night.
Having won seven NCAA national championship titles - the second-most of any Division I team - Kentucky has traditionally been one of college basketball’s elite programs. In recent years, though, the Wildcats have suffered through some disappointing seasons.
They haven’t reached the Final Four since 1998 - the longest drought between national semifinals appearances in school history - and last season, they failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
Just days after finishing 22-14, Kentucky fired second-year coach Billy Gillispie and a week later hired lured Calipari away from Memphis by giving him an eight-year, $31.65 million deal.
“I’m not the grand poobah,” he told a packed news conference barely 12 hours after signing the contract. “I’m not the emperor. That’s not what I want to be.”
Calipari’s history of winning is what the Wildcats are counting on as they look to return to national prominence. The 40-year-old has won 445 games and guided both Memphis and Massachusetts to the Final Four, although both were later vacated because of NCAA violations.
Calipari was not implicated in either instance, but the spotlight will certainly be on him as he begins his tenure in the Bluegrass State.
“(Players in Kentucky) are held to a higher standard than other players across the country, and so am I as a coach,” he said. “You are held to a different standard. That is the privilege of being here. Things that go on over (at other schools) just cannot go on here.”
When Calipari was announced as the new coach, it took little time for expectations to grow.
While the Wildcats lost Jodie Meeks—who averaged an SEC-leading 23.7 points per game—to the NBA, they bring back a wealth of talent including Patrick Patterson, who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in 2008-09, and one of the nation’s top prospects in John Wall.
However, Wildcats fans will have to wait on Wall. He’ll sit out the home opener as part of an NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits from his former AAU coach and will be available Monday against Miami of Ohio.
Eric Bledsoe will start at point guard in Wall’s place. He had nine points, four assists, four steals and two blocks in Kentucky’s exhibition win over Campbellsville on Nov. 2.
Calipari was glad the Wall situation was addressed early, keeping the issue from being a distraction in the season opener. The Wildcats now are focused on getting the program back on a winning track, perhaps no one more so than Patterson, who chose to return to school rather than declare for the NBA draft.
Patterson, a junior, was one of the nation’s top shooters in 2008-09, connecting on 60.3 percent of his shots - 11th-best in the nation.
“We know for the past two years we haven’t performed to the top level that Kentucky is used to,” Patterson said. “We definitely want to take Kentucky back to the top again.”
Last season, Morehead State captured the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title and won its opening-round game in the NCAA tournament before losing to top-seeded Louisville. The Eagles come in favorites to win the OVC.
“We are honored,” coach Donnie Tyndall told the team’s official Web site, “but it also means we won’t sneak up on anyone this year.”
The Eagles bring back Kenneth Faried, who averaged 13.9 points and 13.0 rebounds - third-most in the nation - last season, and was the conference’s preseason player of the year. Another three of last season’s starters also return, but they’ll have to find a way to replace Leon Buchanan, who averaged 15.1 points in 2008-09.
Morehead State hasn’t played Kentucky since 2004 and is winless in eight all-time meetings, including six in Lexington.