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Is Kentucky basketball falling behind other blue blood programs?

John Calipari doesn’t want any more excuses from his players. (Jeff Houchin Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about what, if anything, is wrong with the Kentucky basketball program.

First, John Calipari hasn’t forgotten how to coach basketball since the end of the 2015 season. In fact he may have improved as a coach since then because of the various types of players he has recruited and coached over that three year span. So what gives? His teams in 2011 through 2015 went to four Final Fours in five years. That’s pretty hard to beat as a coach. Also in that same time span he had one national championship team and one runner-up.

But after that 2015 season the UK program has seen quite a drop off. After that 38-1 Final Four team in 2015, Calipari has had a round of 32 team in 2016, an Elite Eight in 2017 and a Sweet Sixteen team in 2018. By most school’s standards that would still be quite an accomplishment but at Kentucky that is a pretty precipitous dropoff from four Final Four teams in five years. So again, what gives? What has changed?

First of all the landscape of college basketball has changed. Since 2015 we have seen Villanova win two championships and teams like Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Loyola-Chicago make appearances in the Final Four. Those are not your typical powerhouse bluebood basketball schools.

But with the advent of the “one and done” pathway for college basketball players it has now become easier for a good coach to take a relatively talented group of juniors and seniors — like South Carolina or Loyola — that know how to play the game and play well together and beat many of the traditional basketball powerhouse schools in a one game series like the current format of the NCAA Tournament. Those one and done players don’t have the experience level needed to play consistently for five games in a row against ever increasing competition.

Besides the changing landscape of college basketball there have also been some changes to John Calipari’s staff. During the time period from 2010 to 2014 Calipari had Orlando Antigua on his staff along with Kenny Payne and John Robic. Antigua left the staff in 2015 to become the head coach at USF and is currently an assistant coach at the University of Illinois. John Robic moved into a special assistant position on the staff in 2016. That now leaves Calipari with a “hands on” assistant coaching staff that includes Kenny Payne, Tony Barbee and Joel Justus. That trio has not been able to produce the same results in 2016 through 2018 that the previous group of assistants achieved prior to 2015.

Lastly over the last couple of seasons John Calipari seems to have not changed his basketball philosophy even as he has seen a change in the style of play that other schools are now using. In 2015 and prior Kentucky always had a talented big man as an anchor for the offense and defense in the post area and college basketball tended to revolve more around post play. The list of post players at UK prior to 2015 is a virtual NBA All-Star roster — Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Bam Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Since 2015 Kentucky has had Skal Labissierre, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Nick Richards as their post players. Those guys are good players but not in the same league as the post players from 2010 through 2015.

With all that being said it appears that with the changes in the coaching staff and the lack of a dominating post player along with the improvement of other college basketball programs across the nation John Calipari finds himself in a difficult position at Kentucky. He can’t seem to recruit a dominating post player that would allow him to continue to successfully play his dribble-drive offense but he also doesn’t seem to be able to adjust his style of play to match up more competitively with the teams like Villanova that have changed to a more guard oriented offense that spreads the floor and takes advantage of mismatches against their opponent’s defense.

It looks like going forward in order to improve Kentucky’s chances of returning to a Final Four John Calipari is either going to have to improve the quality level of his assistant coaching staff in the areas of recruiting and player development or change his philosophy of how the game should be played or potentially some of both. If he doesn’t make some type of adjustments in how the staff functions or what strategy the team uses to compete on the new college landscape he risks falling farther behind the other programs that have already made those adjustments to their programs.

But at the end of the day remaining with the status quo does not seem like a viable option if the goal is to get back to being one of the top six to eight programs that has the highest potential to reach a Final Four each year. And at this point — based on their performance the last few years — it doesn’t appear that Kentucky is currently one of those programs.

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  1. Kind of starting to sound like some of you basketball bennies want to get rid of Calipari. I never have been a fan of him or his system, but wow, he has done a lot for Kentucky basketball IMO. I will take his record of achievement over Howland’s or Pearl’s any day, Pearl, a man who probably shouldn’t even be coaching today based on his past antics. Take a deep breath and let’s wait and see how the year turns out before we write this team off and lynch our coach.

  2. I never understood the hiring of Barbee or Justus. They are probably very good people, but they are not the type of coaches other teams are trying to hire away from UK. Personally, I think when Antigua left, that really hurt UKs recruiting; especially, with the bigs.
    I would like to see Calipari go back to having a team with several good players and only 1 or 2 top players each year to mesh with a group of Juniors and Seniors.

  3. I would prefer the type of roster Oldfan describes, but to characterize it as “go back to” is difficult to understand because I don’t recall Calipari ever approaching the roster in that manner.

    1. Professor, I should have prefaced my statement. I meant in regards to some of his latter teams at Memphis. Not sure he had 1 and dones, but he had several very good experienced players and some players that did not stay 4 years. Pitino also went this direction at UK, where he would have a core of experienced players and then add 1 or 2 great players that would leave early. Personally, I would take the ’96 team over anything Cal has put on the floor. Because of experience, the ’96 knew how to take the opponents heart out of the game and just demolished many teams that year.

  4. @Keith Peel:
    You are spot-on with your assessment of the current situation at UK…IMO.
    MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR !!!

  5. Frankly, I enjoy winning on the court AND on the recruiting trail.

  6. I think Green, in transferring, will help himself become a better player. He had great promise when he came to UK, but was never the player I think he is capable of being, I wish the young man well.

    1. Quade is transferring and I hope he does well.
      He is a good player and hopefully he will find a team that can help him develop his game to its fullest potential.
      There is another player who will probably do the same thing, but I hope he finishes out the season with UK.

  7. Yes, I am the guy with the rope. Cal has underperformed. We should have had at least 3 more titles but don’t because of poor guard play, or are we going to be satisfied with just going to the Final Four and not winning it? He has consistently favored inefficient guard play over efficient frontcourt play. Could that be why he is whiffing on the top big men? Cal is getting good players but he can’t coach them up to be great players. We ran Tubby off with just one title in 10 years, why shouldn’t Cal be held to that same standard? There is a realistic chance that this team won’t make the NCAA tournament. Let’s see how you feel when this team ends up with double digit losses, a .500 SEC record, and an NIT appearance. It pains me to say this but anyone who knows anything about basketball knows I am closer to being right than wrong.

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