Tough questions about John Calipari’s future at Kentucky are now inevitable after the Oakland upset
Tough questions about John Calipari’s future at Kentucky are now inevitable after the Oakland upset

PITTSBURGH — The question Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart must answer now is as simple as it is complex: What is the cost of the program’s dignity? What’s the point of kicking a Hall of Fame coach who can neither recapture his magic nor ever offer even a coherent theory as to why? What would the Wildcats be willing to pay for, say, more than one NCAA Tournament win over the past four years? And is the obscene $33 million buyout in John Calipari’s “lifetime” contract albatross too much?

Tough questions, before unfathomable questions, must be asked after Calipari’s latest stunning postseason performance, an 80-76 loss in the South Regional at 14th-seeded Oakland, which has never won an NCAA Tournament game. The details hardly matter, but a former Division II player coming off the bench to bury 10 3-pointers and score 32 points against No. 3 seed Kentucky only adds insult to incompetence. Calipari just took the most talented, most exciting, most beloved roster he’s had in years and failed to win a single postseason game with it. Not an SEC tournament game. Not an NCAA tournament game.

In the end, no game matters. Calipari had the national freshman of the year, Reed Shepard, genetically engineered to bring maximum joy to Kentucky fans, and squandered what might have been his only season in Lexington. Calipari had a fifth-year player, Antonio Reaves, who scored more points than any player who has ever coached at Kentucky — including 27 more Thursday night just to give the Cats a chance — and squandered him. He had Rob Dillingham, the most sensational microwave scorer in the country, and lost 10 freaking games.

“Everybody loved watching this team and I loved playing for this team,” Shepard said after the game, between sobs, “and it sucks that it’s over.”

Former National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe looked and sounded much the same, completely shell-shocked and devastated, after the previous two collapses in March under Calipari, who took the most dominant board in modern college basketball history and won one game of the tournament at SEC and one NCAA Tournament game and a loss to No. 15 seed St. Peters in 2022. There was a time when it seemed absurd to say that Calipari didn’t succeed with the hordes of talent he enjoyed at Kentucky, because then “ underachieving’ meant going to seven Elite Eights and four Final Fours in his first 10 seasons, but only one national championship.

What he wouldn’t give to be his current definition of failure. He went four years without an SEC title and this year turned the No. 1 recruiting class and the best 3-point shooting team in program history into the second-most humiliating NCAA Tournament loss this blue blood has ever suffered .

“We wanted to go far,” Dillingham said, “but we just didn’t take advantage of the moment. We weren’t ready for that. I feel like we have the best team in a long time. Every single player, every position, we can all dribble, pass and shoot. It’s nice to say, but we had to get out. We definitely had to go deeper.

Deeper implies any depth at all. Zero postseason wins with a team overflowing with offensive talent. But they couldn’t protect a fence post — or a guy who entered with the most 3-pointers of any player in the tournament and just eight 2-point attempts all season, who clearly wanted to shoot from a sweet spot on the floor Thursday night. Kentucky obliges often. It was the fiery disaster everyone saw coming. Except for Calipari, obviously.

“This one, it really hurts for them because other years you’re maxed out and you lose a game and you’re like, ‘Oh my God,'” Calipari said. “(But) this team, I really felt, could have done a lot more. I just thought I had a team that could do some things.

He had this team. He did very little with them. Wins over North Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama, all four seeds in that NCAA Tournament, ended up being little more than a mockery. It could be, but it won’t be.

The unacceptable results aren’t the only reason it’s time to seriously think about parting ways with the 65-year-old Calipari. His inability to take responsibility for failures – or to identify their cause – is in some ways even worse. What went wrong this time?

“We made some critical mistakes at critical times again today,” Calipari said, “and when you have a really young team and you look at where the mistakes came from, they were freshmen.”

Nonsense. Calipari made a clear and challenging choice in the face of apparent change in college basketball. Everyone else got super old and Calipari got as young as ever. He played alongside five freshmen this season. And not by chance.

“If you’re asking me about talent or experience, I’m taking talent,” a bulging Calipari said at the team’s media day in October, “and talent usually gets it.”

But it didn’t happen. Calipari also had his oldest roster in 2022 and fell short in the first round. Players change every season in Lexington. Over the past four years, the staff has turned over a ton. The common denominator is the program guy who gets paid $9 million a year. Maybe he could take some of the blame?

Asked what he might have done to help those players Thursday night, Calipari cited a timeout he should have called earlier. Maybe he went a little early in the box-and-one defense, he said.

“But in hindsight, when you’re a coach, if you do something and we win that game, you’re a genius – and if you don’t, you know you’re the bad guy,” he said. “Like I said, I thought preparation was what it should be.”

This is very controversial. And it ignores any possibility that mistakes were made at the top. Which brings us to the other burning question: If Kentucky can’t or won’t pay the buyout, if Calipari returns for a 16th season, then what? What, if anything, would be different? A stony-faced Barnhart declined a request for an interview after the game.

Late Thursday night, Calipari said what none of Kentucky’s fed-up fans want to hear right now, that “we have an incredible group coming in,” more five-star freshmen, the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation. It’s like he learned absolutely nothing.

He was asked if recent postseason failures would affect his roster-building philosophy.

“That’s a good question,” Calipari said. “I’ve done that with young teams my whole career and it’s going to be hard for me to change that because we’ve helped so many young people and their families that I can’t see myself just saying, well, we’re not going to recruit freshmen.”

He admitted that the game “changed on us; suddenly became very old”, although this change is not sudden at all. “Maybe add some older guys to complement,” Calipari said. But also, “we may not need it.”

Maybe not if some of these incredibly talented freshmen actually return for a change. If somehow Shepard et al return for a second season. The odds of that seem slim, but if there’s any hope Calipari can salvage something from the wreckage of this season, this is it.

And say this for the man: His players love him, believe in him, protect him. They are among the rapidly dwindling number of people who would even try.

“None of this is on Coach,” Shepard said, sobbing again. “The coach is not out there playing the game. He’s not out there shooting. He is not there to guard. He’s not there and he’s not doing anything. They prepared us for the game and we couldn’t stop them. None of this is on any of the coaches, I don’t care what anyone says. We have the best coach in the world.”

But now the question Barnhart must ask himself is how many other coaches might have done more with less than Calipari was given, and what might be worth finding out.

(John Calipari and Reed Shepherd photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

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