College Basketball

What went wrong for the Kentucky Wildcats this season?

March 12

Since the arrival of John Calipari in 2009, Big Blue Nation has had a lot to be excited about in Lexington.

Calipari has led the Kentucky Wildcats to three Elite Eight appearances and three Final Fours since he took over the storied program, winning the national championship in 2012.

The talent he has consistently assembled has been impressive, including three No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft in John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.

But even the mighty are susceptible to falling from time to time. That's what happened to Kentucky in the 2020-21 season.

Entering the season ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25, Calipari had full confidence in his Wildcats, proclaiming at the time that the only thing that could stop them was the coronavirus.

Yet they were stopped all too often, finishing 9-16, and their season-ending loss to Mississippi State resulted in the Wildcats' not reaching the SEC Tournament quarterfinals for the first time in nearly 60 years.

It marks just the second time under Calipari that Kentucky will not play in the NCAA Tournament.

Plenty of things went wrong for the Wildcats and Calipari this season, most notably a disappointing crop of newcomers.

Their group of seven incoming freshmen was considered the top-rated recruiting class in the country, headlined by Brandon Boston Jr., Terrence Clarke, Isaiah Jackson, Devin Askew and Cam'ron Fletcher.

Those five each struggled at times throughout the season.

Boston, the highest-rated recruit in the class, dealt with inconsistency, averaging 12 points but shooting only 36% from the field.

In Kentucky's final game of the season, he and Askew – who averaged just 6.8 points – went scoreless.

Clarke, the second-highest rated recruit in the class, battled an ankle injury that sidelined him from Dec. 26 through March 11, the Wildcats' final game of the season. Clarke also struggled when healthy, and the last time he scored double figures was a 14-point outing in a Dec. 12 loss to Notre Dame.

Jackson battled foul trouble, averaging 2.9 fouls per game, and Fletcher struggled to crack the rotation, averaging just 7.4 minutes in the eight games he played.

The least-heralded recruit of the class, Dontaie Allen, led the Wildcats in scoring with 23 points against Mississippi State, which was more than the rest of his classmates combined.

Kentucky has become known as a one-and-done factory under Calipari, but with much of this recruiting class struggling to live up to expectations, it's fair to wonder if this heralded group needs to return to school. Calipari would welcome these players back — under the condition that they are honest with themselves about their performances this season and commit to improving in their sophomore campaigns.

"I'm not coming back to do showtime. I'm not coming back to say, 'Hey, this is my team.' I'm coming back because I'm going to get better, and I can accept that I didn't play the way that I needed to play," Calipari said.

The struggles of the team were exacerbated by the departure of Kenny Payne, who served as an assistant coach from 2010 to 2020 but left for a job as an assistant with the New York Knicks.

Kentucky isn't used to down years, but this was certainly one. It is fair to bet on Calipari's squad bouncing back, however. The last time his Wildcats missed the tournament was 2013, and they made the Final Four each of the next two seasons.

Let's see if he can keep that trend alive next year.


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