There have been several moments in the John Calipari era where people inside this fanbase and outside this fanbase panicked about whether this program was going to work:
- Mid-Season 2011: After a disappointing Elite 8 finish in 2010, the Brandon Knight-led team lost 6 of their first 7 SEC road games and sat at 7-6 in conference in mid-February. Many questioned at that time John Calipari’s coaching chops and whether freshman led team could truly lead to championships. From a loss at Arkansas in February though, UK won 10 in a row, made the Final Four, and the fanbase rejoiced.
- All Season 2013: After a national championship season, the 2013 campaign was basically a nightmare from start to finish. Despite the stellar play of Nerlens Noel, that team never connected with the fanbase, Archie Goodwin was one of the least like UK freshman in the Cal era, and the team was terrible to watch, ending in an embarrassing SEC Tournament loss and a loss to Robert Morris. Some wondered if it was working, just 1 year after a title.
- Most of the Season 2014: Despite bringing in the best class in school history on paper, UK struggled for much of that season. Following the 2013 season, the national media jumped all over the chance to call the John Calipari method a failure when it looked like UK was going to suffer through two straight poor seasons. A surprise run to the Final Four saved that all and made many a media writer look silly.
- End of Season 2018: After a Sweet 16 in 2016 and Elite 8 in 2017, many thought the 2018 season would be one back to the Final Four for UK. Instead, the team was wildly inconsistent and somewhat difficult for fans to connect with and then when the NCAA Tournament draw opened up for a Final Four run, instead UK flamed out against Kansas State. For the first time, it looked as if recruiting may have slipped a little.
- Now: Following another top talent choosing someone other than UK, the spotlight is brighter than ever on the recruiting success of John Calipari. The players he has been getting have been not performing up to their rankings in higher percentage of numbers and he is flat out missing on much of the top talent he recruits.
In each of the times above, something has caused the panic among some in the fanbase to subside, normally a strong NCAA Tournament run. And this year’s team could certainly make such a run in a season where there appears to be one dominant team and a bunch of good teams. But through 4 games, this UK team has been, frankly, a disappointment. It’s so very early but a team that returned more than most of Calipari’s team appears to play like a bunch of freshman. And there doesn’t appear to be a absolute STAR on the team this year as well, but rather a collection of very good players.
For 99.9% of college basketball teams, a collection of very good talent would be ideal and they would trade rosters with Kentucky in a heartbeat. But this program is one that John Calipari has hyped from Day 1 as the “Gold Standard” of college basketball and the program all other’s aspire to be. But since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Kentucky has not lived up to that standard. Instead they have been an OK basketball program. And that OK basketball program has done the following in those 2+ seasons:
39-15 SEC record
3 SEC Tournament Titles
1 Elite 8
2 Sweet 16’s
5-8 against UCLA, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas, Michigan State, Duke
Now, that is a resume that most programs would take and celebrate. But again, and this is my biggest point, that is not the program that John Calipari says we are and should expect. Should we expect teams that lose 5 SEC games a year and make 2nd weekend’s of the NCAA Tournament, not 3rd weekends? Is it a program that has a losing record against our biggest rivals and now is consistently losing recruiting battles for the country’s top players?
In the land of UK basketball, the program is just doing OK right now. That’s a fact. At this moment in time, the program is just doing OK. But remember in the instances above, the program has just been doing OK several times in the John Calipari era and each and every time it has rebounded in one way or another.
But with another recruiting loss now accomplished, the roster likely looking at another heavy turnover next season, and this season not getting off on the right foot, the question needs to be asked: Are you OK with an OK program? If the stats above continue, meaning a high winning percentage but not an elite team, can we accept that? Or do the Final Fours and super-elite players have come back to this program and fast before the natives get restless?