John Calipari Finally Sinking Under Big Blue Sea
John Calipari is the only SEC basketball coach that any of you care about. I'm not sure that this says more about Coach Cal or more about how boring the rest of the SEC basketball coaches are. I mean, Billy Donovan is great, maybe the most underrated coach in college basketball, but does anyone in the conference actually dislike him? Nope. This, by the way, tells you all you need to know about SEC basketball, a guy can have two national titles, be undefeated in the conference this season, and I don't think a single SEC fan even dislikes Billy Donovan. Can you ever imagine this happening in SEC football?
The same indifference applies to every other SEC basketball coach. Heck. most of you can't even name every SEC basketball coach. And I'll be honest with you, neither can I. I just ran through every coach -- confession, I don't know LSU's coach's first name -- until I got to Mississippi State. I have no idea who Mississippi State's basketball coach is. Chances are, neither do you. (It's not Rick Stansbury, FYI.)
All of this helps to explain why SEC basketball is so bad, the good players don't stay very long, the coaches are incredibly boring and relatively undistinguished, and fans don't demand better. It's why every fan base in the SEC except for Kentucky and Florida would trade their head coach right now for former-Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. The coaches aren't very good at their jobs and they're boring. In this day and age, that's a horrible combination.
Which brings us back to Coach Cal, the SEC's only lightning rod, the only basketball coach that most of you have any opinion about at all. You either love Coach Cal, in which case you are a Kentucky basketball fan, or you hate him, in which case you are the rest of SEC fans.
For the first three seasons, Cal seemed to revel in this attention, bask in the disdain, preen in the acclaim.
For better or worse, he was a great entertainer, the straw the stirred the SEC basketball drink.
Then his team tanked and lost in the first round of the NIT.
This year was supposed to be a redemption story. Remember all the undefeated talk? Well, that faded quickly. Now with eight losses this year's Kentucky team has been like a slow-motion train wreck. And it appears that Kentucky basketball fans are finally starting to drive Cal insane.
First, Calipari said that this year's Kentucky team was the most scrutinized team in sports history. He said that about a college basketball team in February, evidently forgetting that no one outside the state of Kentucky cares about his college basketball team until March. It was the kind of statement rooted in Big Blue myopia, a sign that Cal was starting to sink into a sea of Rupp Arena madness. Sure, Kentucky fans were scrutinizing his team, but Kentucky fans always scrutinize every team, it's what Cat fans do. But no one else cared that much about his team. Hell, every NFL team got more scrutiny in the month of February than Kentucky basketball did.
So that was a bit alarming.
Then Saturday night Cal was ejected from the South Carolina game. If you watch this video, it seems clear that he's trying to get ejected, which is a sure sign of a coach who has no idea what in the world to do to motivate his team.
After Coach Cal was ejected, the team played better for his assistant coach. Asked about that yesterday, Coach Cal got testy.
Watch that interaction from yesterday's press conference:
Sure, his answer's kind of funny, but it hints at something more -- the honeymoon between John Calipari and the Kentucky fan base is over. After starting 102-14 in his first three seasons, Cal's just 42-20 in the past two years. That's not awful, but it's not enough to keep the Big Blue faithful happy either. It's also, shudder, not that far removed from Billy Gillispie's 40-27 record in his two seasons at Kentucky, when the SEC was much better than it has been the past two years, There are only so many first round NIT losses to Robert Morris this fan base can stomach. Last year was an embarrassment, but it was supposed to be an aberration. This year was supposed to be the return to glory, what with five of the top 11 basketball players in the nation rolling into Lexington.
Only this team's not very good either.
It's floundering down the stretch and seems likely to limp into the SEC tournament at 12-6 in a woeful SEC. A 10-18 South Carolina team just took Kentucky to the woodshed. A 9-7 in the SEC Arkansas team swept Cal's Wildcats this year. Coach Cal makes $5.5 million a year and he looks like the saddest millionaire coach in the country. Look at him on the sideline, he's lost, bereft of ideas, at sea in a Big Blue life raft being circled by sharks in his own fan base.
More than anything else Coach Cal just looks tired.
This is what being Kentucky's basketball coach does to you, it's like being Alabama's football coach, you can't escape obsessed idiots. Everywhere you look is madness. That fan base can lift you up higher than anywhere else when things are rolling, but as soon as you show a hint of mediocrity, it swallows you whole, spits you out, leaves you looking disoriented and lashing out at the press. Nick Saban knows this at Alabama, it's why he thought about jumping to Texas. Special pressures, and all. But Saban's never had the equivalent of an NIT season at Alabama. Imagine what Tide faithful would be like if Saban went 6-6 one year, then signed the greatest class in college football history, said the Tide would rise again, and was 7-5 the next season.
Because right now that's what John Calipari has done at Kentucky.
You think Saban would react well to that pressure and intense press scrutiny? No way. Remember, Saban's the same guy who compared a loss to Louisiana-Monroe to 9/11.
John Calipari isn't reacting well to that pressure right now either. For the first time since he got to Kentucky, he looks like a man who would prefer to be anywhere else. And here's the scary thing for Kentucky fans, as good as your program is, who's the guaranteed winner out there for you to hire if Cal jumped to the pros? Remember, programs don't matter as much as coaches do in the modern era. Or do I need to remind you guys about Billy Gillispie? If Cal bolted, finally overwhelmed by the job, who would Kentucky hire?
Oklahoma State's Travis Ford? Is he really the answer? Billy Donovan's already said no twice. Brad Stevens isn't leaving the Celtics for a pay cut at Kentucky. Shaka Smart would hate the media scrutiny. Who does that leave? Could you hire away Thad Matta from Ohio State? Or, in the most delicious irony of all, if John Calipari left would Kentucky fans clamor for Bruce Pearl?
If so, Wildcat fans would find themselves right back in the muck with the rest of the conference, an ugly mess of misfit basketball toys.
For as much fun as SEC fans have with Big Ten football, for the past two seasons SEC basketball is the Big Ten of football, one giant program, Florida, surrounded by dwarfs.
And right now Kentucky basketball under John Calipari is the SEC's tallest midget.