John Calipari vows to make changes after Kentucky's latest early NCAA tournament exit

Shortly after his team’s stunning first-round NCAA tournament loss to Oakland last Thursday, embattled Kentucky coach John Calipari turned off his phone for a couple days and secluded himself from the outside world.

Calipari needed that time, he says, to get his “mind back right,” to regroup from a setback that still makes him “physically ill” to think about five days later.

When he resurfaced Monday night to make an hour-long appearance on his weekly radio show, Calipari didn’t speak like someone whose job was in danger after a fourth straight season falling short of the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Calipari instead spoke of working relentlessly and making any necessary changes to get Kentucky back to competing for Final Fours and national championships.

“That is a commitment that I give to the fans,” Calipari said. “Now let’s come together and let’s go do something special. We can do it. We’ve done it. Let’s do it again.”

Calipari’s job security has been in doubt since his latest March catastrophe last Thursday night. A grad transfer from Division II Hillsdale College came off Oakland’s bench and knocked down 10 threes, outshining Kentucky’s array of former McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA Draft picks.

Of course, that wasn’t the first time Kentucky has made an NCAA tournament folk hero out of a little-known opposing player. Two years ago, it was Doug Edert, Saint Peter’s mustachioed sixth man, who spearheaded an improbable 15-versus-2 upset. Last year, it was Markquis Nowell, Kansas State’s 5-foot-8 Mr. New York City, who erupted for 27 points to take down the Wildcats. In 2021, no one made their name off toppling Kentucky because the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament altogether, going from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 faceplant.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart has made no public comment about Calipari’s future or the more than $33 million that his contract stipulates the university would owe him if it fired him this offseason. Calipari said that he and Barnhart have not yet had their annual end-of-season meeting, but that could happen as soon as Tuesday.

“He’s hurting like the rest of us,” Calipari said. “I look forward to hearing his thoughts, how we can be better.”

Among the changes that Calipari intends to discuss is how best to construct Kentucky’s roster. In 2022 and 2023, Kentucky fielded more experienced, transfer-heavy lineups that weren’t as talented as some of Calipari’s best teams. This season, Calipari went back to relying on five-star freshmen but they struggled to defend older, tougher opponents and mostly wilted in the NCAA tournament spotlight.

“In today’s environment, it’s a little different now,” Calipari said. “Kids are 25, 26, 27. How do you continue to do it with freshmen?”

Mar 21, 2024; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a play in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2024; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a play in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Calipari said that his ideal roster is a mix of both established veterans and talented freshmen. He hopes to keep playing the fast-paced, 3-point-happy style that he embraced for the first time this season while also getting back to the tough, physical defense that was the hallmark of his best Kentucky teams.

To make that change, Calipari envisions fewer summer tours abroad in the Bahamas and more time spent “grinding” in the weight room and doing defensive drills on the practice floor.

Before Calipari can make any changes, he has to figure out which of his current players intend to return next season. He says he’ll have individual meetings with players this week to better understand their plans and how he can help.

“I’m not ever telling anyone you have to leave and I’m not telling anyone they have to stay,” Calipari said. “At the end of the day, they have to make that decision and they have to live it.”

While Calipari never spoke like there was any chance he could lose his job, he did acknowledge the angst among Kentucky fans. “Fire Cal” trended on social media Thursday night and debate over whether Kentucky should retain Calipari has dominated the headlines in Lexington and beyond.

Calipari said that after the Oakland loss, he knew fans “would go crazy and they should.” And yet he’s convinced that in time, “eventually it will die down.”

The radio show concluded with a hard break that cut Calipari off mid-soliloquy. Host Tom Leach warned Calipari that his time was running short, but the coach ignored him and plowed ahead, maybe the perfect metaphor for the current state of the Kentucky program.