Kentucky sputters, boosters begin turning on Calipari

Kentucky sputters, boosters begin turning on Calipari

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Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari during an NCAA basketball game between Michigan Wolverines and Kentucky Wildcats at the O2 Arena in London, Sunday, December 4, 2022.

Ian Walton-Stringer, AP

Remember when Kentucky was reckless with Southeastern Conference basketball?

That was quite a time. These days, the Wildcats are just another solid roster in the SEC, which this week placed five more teams in the Associated Press top 25.

Tennessee (No. 8), Alabama (No. 9), Arkansas (No. 10) and Mississippi State (No. 15) rank ahead of No. 19 Kentucky. And Auburn comes in not far behind the Wildcats at No. 23.

The Wildcats put on a particularly flat performance against UCLA Saturday in New York City, much to the chagrin of their legitimate fans.

“I’m disappointed that we lost, but I’m also disappointed with games I thought we could do and some turnovers that I just felt were unnecessary,” said coach John Calipari after the game.

“We’re not a bad free-throw team. we were today But in all of this, mental toughness comes into play,” said Calipari. “You just have to be tough enough to know it’s my turn. I do these. You can’t play 5 for 13 off the line, not in a game like this. You can’t do four front ends one on one, so you really are 5 for 17. You don’t have to take every free throw, but you can’t match those numbers.

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“This is a game where you’re trying to get 75 points, but you’re going to have to take a few shots,” Calipari said. “Make a float. Tell you what, they made some floaters. We missed everyone.”

Chris Fisher, writing for 247 Sports, offered this takedown of the Big Blue:

Following Kentucky’s 63-53 loss to UCLA at the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden, there’s no denying that head coach John Calipari and British fans are locked in a loveless marriage.

And that doesn’t feel like the usual hand-wringing of the Big Blue Nation. This feels like we’re about to have a bitter divorce.

It’s not just Saturday night’s loss to the No. 16 Bruins, who just smashed a top-25 Maryland team down the road to drop the Wildcats to 7-3 on the year. It’s the cumulative effect of a 4-13 in the last 17 against the Associated Press’s top 25 opponents.

Losing to UCLA just felt all too familiar. Trailing 55-53, Kentucky again failed to perform in a tight game, missing their last 11 shots and remaining scoreless in the final 4:31.

Since signing his “lifetime” contract at the end of the 2018-19 season, Calipari has fallen to 67-33 overall, 8-15 against ranked opponents and 7-11 against non-conference Power 5 teams. During that span, Kentucky has zero NCAA tournament wins and only one SEC tournament win, and that came against Vanderbilt last season. Calipari followed 2020-21 with one of the worst seasons in British basketball history, with perhaps the program’s worst NCAA tournament loss to last season’s No. 15 Saint Peter’s.

Caliparis’ approval rating among British fans is at an all-time low, now in his 14th season at the top. And once you lose the fans, it’s really hard to get them back. Now it feels like even the most ardent of his supporters are on Calipari now.

“We’re going to get better, folks,” Calipari promised after the UCLA game. “We’re getting better.”

Here’s what people are writing about SEC basketball

Matt Norlander, “Calipari went into this season in more control than he had ever experienced as a college coach. Kentucky was a nine-win team two seasons ago, one of the worst years in the Big Blue Nation’s turbulent history. Totally unacceptable, COVID affected season or not. The Cats rebounded last season, earning a No. 2 finish in the NCAA tournament and a Naismith National Player of the Year performance from Oscar Tshiebwe. . . Just for that to get blown up by Saint Peter on the first lap. This brought an urgency to Caliparis’ office in a way he had never felt before. It’s not like his job is in jeopardy. Of course not. But Kentucky fans hold their coaches just as accountable, if not more so, than any other base in college sports. After ten games it’s hard to say there’s a lot to be happy about. Kentucky continues to face legitimate competition. A 7-3 record with that mark’s reservation, including a 1-3 record against power conference programs, won’t cut it. Calipari has praised his team’s attacking prowess in preseason. There was a credible promise. He recruited to improve Britain’s offensive concept. Up to this point, however, this proclamation is sketchy at best. For the Wildcats to score just 53 points against a good UCLA team playing three time zones away from where they will be celebrating Christmas is alarming.”

Andy Katz, “Chris Jans has always been a winner. His New Mexico state teams in the NCAA tournament were always tough. The Aggies should have defeated Auburn in the 2019 Tigers run to the title game but failed to finish the game. Last March, the Aggies defeated UConn. So it’s no surprise that he’s finding success in his first season in Mississippi. But being 11-0 is important. The Bulldogs haven’t played the toughest schedule, but they’ve been careful. They’re stingy. They defeated Marquette and Utah, two teams that have clinched significant wins like Baylor and Arizona respectively, and were the season’s turning point wins. They came to Fort Myers in November, where the Bulldogs gave up just 55 points to Marquette and just 49 to the Utes. Scoring was sometimes a bonus, as the Bulldogs didn’t eclipse 60 in either game. Still, an away win proved in the fighting Minnesota a few weeks later that they’re just being careful of what’s in store for them, winning the games they should if they want to be a contender for the SEC title. Playing Drake and then opening the SEC against Alabama and Tennessee will set the bar. Western Kentucky transfer Tolu Smith made the difference. The 6-11 Big can control color and be disruptive on the defensive end. Memphis transfer DJ Jeffries appears to have found a second home with the Bulldogs and become the effective goalscorer he was billed for when he arrived on the scene. Senior transfers Deshawn Davis (Oregon State) and Will McNair Jr. (New Mexico State) have answered the call by being productive. Jans has handled the transfer portal exceptionally well and has a roster that should be at least an NCAA tournament team and get a decent seeding.”

Jeff Borzello, “Of the seven Kansas players who watched more than five minutes in the 2022 national championship win over North Carolina, only two have returned for the 2022-23 season. Out the door went first-round picks Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun, along with three other veterans. So it’s quite remarkable that Bill Self has the Jayhawks back in the top five – and after their demolition of Indiana back on the shortlist of teams to take down the nets in a couple of months. Since losing to Tennessee in the Bahamas the day after Thanksgiving, Kansas have looked as impressive as any team in the country. The Jayhawks are 4-0 since that loss and are winning those four games with a 27-point average. They have two real studs in Jalen Wilson, one of the nation’s biggest breakout stars, and Gradey Dick, one of the nation’s top rookies. Kevin McCullar Jr. is a versatile two-way player. Dajuan Harris Jr. is an incredibly underrated point guard at both ends of the floor: In his last four games, he has 35 assists with just seven turnovers. And KJ Adams Jr.’s toughness, along with four straight double-digit scoring games, has allowed Self to leverage his small-ball lineup to such success. Can Kansas repeat? Men’s college basketball hasn’t seen back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007, and Kansas won’t like that. But the Jayhawks look like they’ll be a factor again in late March and early April.

Mike Lopresti, “Time for some trivia on Connecticut men’s basketball. What did the huskies do in the 16 years from 1999-2014? Win four national championships and reach a fifth Final Four. What have you done in the eight years since then? Win an NCAA tournament game. That’s why the current rankings in Storrs are so important and so is this question. Connecticut is #2, but should the Huskies be #1? They could certainly make a case after their last tour de rout. They visited Hinkle Fieldhouse and beat Butler 68-46, putting them 12-0, all dozen wins in double digits. Five unbeaten remain, but only Connecticut needs to be pushed to the wire at least once more. All of the UConn weapons were on display Saturday, starting with the ferocity on the boards, which can generate extra shots and weaken a team. The Huskies have outplayed the Bulldogs 54-30 – 18-4 on the offensive end – and outscored them 14-2 in second chance points.

“Heavy loss, hard for all of us. I think our guys put up a great fight and gave us a chance to win the basketball game. I’m so proud of them for this effort and just a hard way down. A guy throws one at the buzzer from almost half the court. This is basketball. We have to learn from it. I think there are many learning moments from this game and we will keep getting better.”

UCF coach Johnny Dawkins after his team’s loss to Missouri.

Eye on the Tigers podcast hosts Ben Frederickson and Dave Matter discuss Isiaih Mosley’s grim situation as the transfer guard remains on the bench for Dennis Gates. Listen to the full podcast

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