Can Kentucky’s program be salvaged?
In 2011, a lanky kid from Chicago joined the Kentucky Wildcats and set the men’s college basketball world on fire. Anthony Davis & Co. would go on to win a national title the following year, and Kentucky would regain its place at the top of college basketball’s hierarchy.
That was then. The past few years have not featured those same highs.
Since its Elite Eight run in 2019, Kentucky hasn’t been a factor in the postseason. In 2020-21, coach John Calipari had a 9-16 finish, the school’s worst mark in 100 years. Last year, the Wildcats lost to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament. There was a time when the best players picked Kentucky or Duke. But Anthony Edwards (Georgia), Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State), Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga), Brandon Miller (Alabama) and other future lottery picks have gone outside the norm in recent years. That, along with the transfer portal, has dismantled the pipeline that often funneled every top recruit to a handful of schools. Yes, Kentucky has a top-ranked recruiting class in 2023, but a young, promising roster offers few guarantees in a sport that assembles teams on the fly each offseason.
Anchored by Wooden Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe, this season’s squad is struggling with a rare talent gap. The Wildcats have Cason Wallace, a potential lottery pick, and veteran role players, but not an overwhelming pool of talent. The lopsided 78-52 loss to Alabama on Saturday demonstrated the difference between an elite team and whatever Kentucky is right now. The 71-68 loss to South Carolina (ranked 205th on KenPom) at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night suggests these struggles could quickly become a complete collapse.
“Fans should be mad,” Calipari said after the South Carolina loss. “We don’t lose at home. … I’m just asking you now to be with these kids. They need you now. Stick with these kids. If you want to get on me, that’s fine. I’m the coach.”
It’s fair to wonder if Kentucky’s players have tuned out Calipari. It’s also fair to question if Calipari has the answers right now. And if he doesn’t, what does that mean for his future at Kentucky? ESPN’s experts discuss.
What are Kentucky’s chances to make the tournament — and, just as importantly, go far in it?
There’s no sugarcoating the obvious. Kentucky is fighting for its NCAA tournament life after losing at home to SEC bottom-dweller South Carolina. The Wildcats will not be part of our next bracket on Friday, and they can forget about any Final Four or national championship aspirations (including from yours truly).
We’ve reached the point at which simple postseason odds come into play. A team with Kentucky’s profile — NET 62, 0-4 in Quad 1, zero wins against the field — is less than 50/50 to make the tourney (46.5% in our Bracketology model).
The saving grace is that the Cats have at least eight Q1 games remaining, plus the SEC tournament. So a turnaround can and may happen.
But I’m only betting on it with someone else’s money. — Joe Lunardi
What can be improved in time for the postseason? What can’t?
In the South Carolina loss, Jacob Toppin was unavailable because of injury and Cason Wallace played only eight minutes before leaving with injury. CJ Fredrick still has a finger injury on his shooting hand, although he played through it against the Gamecocks. So, Kentucky needs to get healthy — even if it is unclear how good the Wildcats really are even at full strength. The young players besides Wallace haven’t quite progressed as expected, but could Chris Livingston, Daimion Collins or Adou Thiero make a jump between now and the end of the season? At the very least, someone like Thiero could bring much-needed energy.
What doesn’t seem overly fixable is the Wildcats’ lack of spacing on the offensive end, due in part to their lack of perimeter shooting. By the numbers, they’re actually in the top 30 nationally in 3-point percentage. But they rank in the 300s in 3-point rate and are averaging 5.4 3s over the past five games. That’s just a really hard way to win in 2023. It allows teams to collapse in the paint and make life difficult for Oscar Tshiebwe. Sahvir Wheeler would much rather get into the teeth of the defense than shoot jumpers. Wallace, Fredrick and Antonio Reeves can all make shots, but Calipari rarely plays more than two of them together, which still leaves three non-shooters on the floor and still results in a shrunken court. — Jeff Borzello
Who needs to step up, and how?
Toppin (right shoulder) and Cason Wallace (lower back) need to return to full strength. Speaking of full strength, even in defeat against the Gamecocks, UK received a lift from the return of Fredrick. The senior is hitting 40% of his 3s this season and did not appear to be hampered in his first game back against South Carolina with an injured finger on his shooting hand.
Assuming everyone is healthy, Kentucky needs better performance on defense from, well, everyone. The entire roster needs to step up on that side of the ball. In SEC play, the Wildcats have allowed opponents to ring up 309 points in just 253 possessions. Part of that has been bad luck, to be sure, as the league has shot 43% on its 3s against UK in the early going. Nevertheless, Kentucky can and must do better not only in limiting the sheer number of perimeter attempts but also on the interior, where opponents are connecting 52% of the time. — John Gasaway
What are the big decisions to be made about the future of the program?
Following their run to the Elite Eight in 2019, Calipari signed a 10-year “lifetime” contract that season. He’d be owed around $46 million if Kentucky decided to fire him after this season. That’s a lot of money, even for a school with deep pockets and wealthy boosters. But that’s also not insurmountable for a school with deep pockets and wealthy boosters.
Yet, the past two years have created a serious divide between the fan base and Calipari, despite the upcoming arrival of D.J. Wagner and a top-ranked recruiting class next season. The opening at Texas — and reports that the school has interest in the longtime Kentucky coach after firing Chris Beard on Jan. 5 — makes the situation even more interesting. The summer spat between Calipari and football coach Mark Stoops, and comments from athletic director Mitch Barnhart, haven’t helped his cause.
Still, Calipari won a national title in 2012 and he has recruited multiple top-ranked recruits. His former Kentucky players have made more than $1 billion collectively in the NBA. And, despite a recent downturn, he’s continuing to draw the best players in America to Lexington.
The big decision Kentucky has to make is this: Is there someone out there who will do better in this climate? Or do you challenge Calipari to overhaul everything — his staff, his playing style, his approach to players — this offseason and then make a decision next summer? We might not get to that point. This feels like the beginning of a divorce. — Myron Medcalf
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