College Basketball
What does another early tournament exit mean for John Calipari and Kentucky?
College Basketball

What does another early tournament exit mean for John Calipari and Kentucky?

Published Mar. 22, 2024 2:35 a.m. ET

Last May, Kentucky coach John Calipari joined me for an exclusive conversation for

In our one-on-one, he opened up about the recent shortcomings of his program and the Wildcats' inability to get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, dating back to 2019. 

"We have to finish better," the 15th-year head coach said. "The last couple of years, we have not been able to go on that run that we expect to here. For us, it's about the big picture and the gold standard we know we can achieve. I have no intention of being anywhere but the head coach at Kentucky. This is where I want to end my career. I want to leave a few more notches in the belt. I want it to be where it's been." 

Where this program is right now is a far cry from where he had it in the first decade of his tenure. With an operating budget of over $23 million, Kentucky suffered its second first-round NCAA Tournament loss in three years on Thursday night, 80-76, to 13th-seeded Oakland University. The Wildcats allowed the Horizon League champion Golden Grizzlies to dictate the way the game was played, and allowed Jack Gohlke to shoot 10-for-20 from 3 and deliver 32 points in the upset. This comes two years after Big Blue Nation was humiliated by 15-seed Saint Peter's in the first round. 


Two years ago, Calipari had the national player of the year in Oscar Tshiebwe, who averaged 16.5 points and 13.7 rebounds per game. This season, he had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and two of the best freshmen in the sport, with Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham. On Thursday night, that duo combined to shoot 3-for-14 from the floor. DJ Wagner, the nation's No. 6 recruit, shot 0-for-5 and was scoreless. 

Kentucky has lost four of its last five NCAA Tournament games, and went one-and-done in both the Big Dance and the SEC Tournament, in which they allowed 97 points in a quarterfinal loss to Texas A&M. This program has been a major failure in March over the last four years, not to mention the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. For the Wildcats to have a six-year gap in between a legitimate NCAA Tournament run is unacceptable for a blue-blood brand. 

It's not news that freshman-heavy teams don't win in March, even to John Calipari, and that's what has to make the people in Lexington boil over with frustration. But the worst part? He didn't take the blame following his team's opening-round loss to Oakland, instead choosing to go this route.

"I don't know. You'd have to ask them," Calipari said when asked if he felt his players were tight. "I thought they were anxious, and when you're anxious, you get really tired really fast. They're not machines, and they need the experience of some of this stuff so when you're in this environment you can do it, and I thought we went through every experience I could talk about."

Simply put, Oakland's collection of seasoned Division II transfers, Gohlke and DQ Cole, along with senior Trey Townsend, were too much for the youth of the Cats. 

Calipari gave the same old song and dance on Thursday night when talking about the future, raving about his No. 2-ranked recruiting class headlined by five-star incoming freshman Jayden Quaintance. 

"We have an unbelievable group coming in that I feel really good about," Calipari said. 

That statement falls on deaf ears because, at the end of the day, nothing about the scheme is changing. 

"I've done this 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 don't see myself just saying, 'OK, we're not going to recruit freshmen,'" Calipari said. "I mean, the thing that we've been blessed with is families bring their sons to us, and we do what we're supposed to do to help them prepare for the rest of their lives. But I've taken some older guys, and we've done it. 

"I like what we were doing offensively. How do we get tougher? How do we get more physical? My teams defensively, in rebounding, have all been better than this, but we've never been like this offensively. I kind of like coaching the way I did this year. We've been able to help so many kids and win so many games and Final Fours, national titles and all this stuff, win league championships with young guys. It's changed on us. All of a sudden, it's gotten really old. So we're playing teams that our average age is 19. Their average age is 24 and 25. So do I change because of that?" 

Yes, you do change, because what you've been doing isn't working when it matters most, and the program you're the coach of requires you to win in March. Also, you can help kids out and not have them be freshmen. Whether they're 18 years old or 20 years old, they're still college kids.

While its unclear what comes next for Calipari and the Wildcats, conversations that begin to assess the trajectory of the program are more than fair amid a continued lack of success in the month of March.

Here's the major dilemma: Calipari's contract has a current buyout of $33,375,000.

The additional question: Who do you hire? Scott Drew is staying at Baylor after the Louisville rumors arose. There really aren't any clear-cut options at the college level unless UK made an extraordinary offer to UConn's Dan Hurley or Auburn's Bruce Pearl, although that seems unlikely. Could the Wildcats call Billy Donovan? Sure, but again, there's just not an obvious choice.

One thing is for certain: Big Blue Nation is ticked off. The buyout price is a major factor, but if anybody would do something brash, it's Kentucky, a school that cares more about basketball than anybody.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him at @John_Fanta.

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