Kentucky fans are right to have high expectations. John Calipari isn’t meeting them.
When asked by the national media, or from someone outside the Bluegrass, the question always comes with a smirk.
“Obviously one of the things that makes your job tougher than some is the expectations that surround Kentucky,” a media member asked John Calipari in the press conference after UK’s 75-69 loss to Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. “Do you empathize with the sense of frustration that I’m sure some Kentucky fans feel right now about kind of where things are?”
High expectations? You bet. Eight national championships. Over 2,000 victories. An arena that seats over 20,000. A loyal and dedicated fan base that will travel to the ends of the Earth to watch its team play. A generous budget for recruiting and staff. A head coach who is paid accordingly at $9 million a year. And who has a “lifetime” contract.
Those are advantages most programs only dream of having.
It all comes with a price.
As the old saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected.
And John Calipari is not meeting those expectations.
This isn’t a “Fire John Calipari” column. Far from it. The man is a Hall of Fame coach. He has over 700 victories, six Final Fours and a national championship on his resume. He has been an excellent steward of the program, using it for good beyond just basketball.
I’m never going to count John Calipari out.
Ah, but he’s also lost three of his last four NCAA Tournament games. Kentucky hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 round since 2019, to the Final Four since 2015, to the ladder to cut down the nets on championship Monday since 2012.
I felt for Calipari’s team Sunday. From everything we could gather this season, this is a good group of kids. They went through a lot. Daimion Collins lost his father right before the start of the season. Injuries took their toll. Consistency was always just outside their reach.
Still, this was just another good-not-great team in a year with plenty of good-not-great teams. It was prone to bad shooting nights on offense and breakdowns on defense. It outrebounded Kansas State by 19 on Sunday and lost. As K-State Coach Jerome Tang said afterward, “We had more dudes than they did today.”
History says Kentucky is the team that has those dudes. The five-star dudes. NBA-ready dudes. Lottery pick dudes. The dudes that make the winning plays at the end of games. That’s what Kentucky fans expect.
“That’s why I tell the players, this isn’t for everybody because the expectations are so high,” Calipari said Sunday. “The same with coaching. It’s not for everybody.”
Is it still for John Calipari? His first task for 2023-24 should be to get himself healthy. He walks with a limp suggesting another hip replacement is in his future. He had all but lost his voice this weekend. He appeared to be showing the effects of a long, frustrating season.
He has the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class arriving for next season, one most experts believe is closer to the elite classes he recruited early in his UK tenure.
College basketball is in a different place now than it was back then, however. The transfer portal. NIL deals. Game-changers both. We will see if a stellar group of freshmen means as much now as it meant back then.
In the end, what worries me about the current state of Kentucky basketball isn’t so much what’s happening on the court as what is happening in the stands. Or what is not happening.
The number of empty seats at Rupp Arena this season was jarring, to say the least. Television, an uninspiring home schedule and ticket prices all surely had something to do with that. But the numbers also suggest a growing apathy about a program that is not meeting the expectations of its fan base.
Despite what you might have heard or read, Kentucky fans are right to have those expectations. For better or worse, it’s part of what makes Kentucky basketball, well, Kentucky basketball. And that’s not going to change.
Nor should it.
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