by Patrick ‘Rey’ Reynell
Kentucky’s (20-10, 11-6) hopes of an NCAA bid this season took a wrong turn at Georgia (15-15, 9-8) Thursday evening. The Bulldogs, who came into the SEC contest at .500 in the league and one game below that mark overall, beat the Wildcats 72-62. Chalk that as one of those proverbial “bad losses” on the ESPN-scale.
The real story, however, may have come in Coach Cal’s post-game press conference. Addressing reporters, Calipari made note that he has never had a team in his 20 years of coaching to be as non-cohesive this time of the season.
He followed that by putting the blame squarely on his shoulders. In his words, if the team doesn’t have that will to win by this point of the season, then, well, “that’s on me.” Listen for yourself at the 1:40 mark:
Now, this is perhaps the most highly criticized coach in all of college basketball. The scrutinizing, though, comes with good reason; you will not find any of his Final Four banners hanging at UMASS or Memphis due to NCAA investigations.
And, above all else, he is not shy about his one-and-done NBA factory of a program. He is a fixture every year at the NBA draft rooting his former freshmen on to greener pastures. Students-athletes? Well, not in the academic sense of the term.
No, Coach Cal instead recruits the five-star freshmen to his program every year not for a multiple year commitment, but rather a sojourn through the bluegrass state on their way to the NBA. Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, John Wall, and most recently Anthony Davis all took their talents to Calipari and are now reaping the benefits as millionaires in the league.
Hearing Calipari take full responsibility for the Wildcats loss at Georgia was refreshing. His system can work beautifully, as it did last season when his Wildcats took home the NCAA championship and Anthony Davis was crowned player of the year.
Then again, it can implode as it did at Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida this season. The leaders right now are, to no surprise, two freshmen: Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein. The prized freshman, Nerlens Noel, is out with a torn ACL.
It must be difficult to build a system and every year have to provide a crash-course on its intricacies to teenagers to master in only a few months.
The juxtaposition of Coach Cal’s strategy can be found in Bill Self’s program. Kansas currently starts one freshman, yet that player is surrounded by four seniors. Coincidentally it was Self’s Jayhawks that prevented Calipari’s first national championship in 2008 when he was still at Memphis.
When it comes to shouldering the blame, Self takes a more humorous approach with his Jayhawks. After a loss at TCU on February 6, which, by the way, is one of only four losses by #4 Kansas this season, Self said the following:
“It was the worst team that Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams when he lost to Topeka YMCA and things like that in the first couple years.”
Ouch. (It is important to note that Self perhaps had room to gripe; TCU’s only win in the last 17 games is against Kansas).
Quite the motivational strategy, Coach Self, although it may have worked as Kansas is currently riding a 7-game win streak.
We will have to wait and see if Calipari’s self-deprecating strategy will pay off.
The Wildcats host #11 Florida (24-5, 14-3) today at noon. This could be the signature win that UK needs to get into the tournament. Should the Wildcats not triumph, we at least know whose fault it is.