Nothing drives home a lesson like the sting of embarrassment.
John Calipari knows it. On Tuesday night in his hometown of Moon Township, Pa., Calipari stood watch as 3,500 fans — the largest crowd to fill the Sewall Center of Robert Morris University in years — stormed the floor to celebrate his Wildcats’ 59-57 defeat in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament.
One year removed from cutting down the nets amid a torrent of confetti in the Superdome after Kentucky won its eighth national championship, Cal had to keep his head up and grit his teeth as he congratulated Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole and the Colonels’ players, a program with only one NCAA tournament victory in school history — 30 years ago.
He probably wanted to be anywhere else. Certainly, the Wildcat players would have rather crawled under a rock.
Cal showed nothing but respect for the Colonels. “This is a shot in the arm for them and they deserve to win the game,” he said. “If we’d won at the buzzer, it would have been a shame.”
The Cats had a chance. Kyle Wiltjer’s final three-pointer to win rattled out, giving the Colonels a two-point edge in a game they never trailed. But overall, Calipari was right. Kentucky had no right to win given how pitifully they played, not just in Moon, but since the injury to star center Nerlens Noel in February.
Losing in the NIT to Robert Morris, a school most Kentucky fans had never heard of last week, seemed a fitting end to a lost year. The fact that it wasn’t a fluke only added to the humiliation. At halftime, the Colonels led by 14. They were up by 10 late in the second.
“This is humbling,” Cal said. Then, referencing his team’s entitlement mentality, he said, “They think we’re supposed to win 30 a year, 35 a year, go to the Final Four, and win a national title.”
That was the case last year. But the one-and-done philosophy that served Kentucky so well with John Wall and then again with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist finally caught up to college basketball’s most storied program.
Those who talk to Calipari regularly groan when he refers to his “really young” team. He’s been using that line since he arrived in Lexington, and for the most part he’s been correct.
Every year, Cal has started at least one freshman. For the 2012 championship season, he started three freshmen and two sophomores. The year before that, when the Cats made it to the Final Four, he started three freshmen.
That revolving-door technique works fine as long as the players entering are as good as the ones exiting. But if you hit a snag — if some superstar AAU player doesn’t quickly mature at the college level, or a high school kid has trouble with the scrutiny and hype of big-time college hoops — then you have what Kentucky had this year: A not-very-good team that never found its footing.
Maybe it is a blessing in disguise, although Wildcat fans will have a hard time swallowing this positive pill. Because they were so bad — and several coaches were overheard calling this the worst Kentucky team they had seen — most of these players will stick around for another season or two. Maybe some of them will become that rarest of breeds in college basketball today: seniors.
Either way, they won’t feel entitled when they take the floor next fall. Embarrassment has a way of wiping away all sense of privilege.
“We will be a tough ball team next year,” Calipari said after the loss. “We will be a tough, hard-nosed fighting team next year. I promise you that. Because I can’t sit through that (again). I can’t take it.”