Kentucky Basketball, John Calipari At Familiar Fork In The Road

    Kentucky basketball and John Caliper are at a familiar fork in the road, but which path will the 'Cats venture down heading into March?

    February 4, 2016

    Kentucky basketball and John Calipari are at a familiar fork in the road, but which way will this year’s ‘Cats go?

    Kentucky is struggling, and just about everyone outside of the Bluegrass State couldn’t be happier.

    The Wildcats, the mighty, mighty Wildcats, have dropped two straight with an overtime loss to Kansas and a collapse at Tennessee that saw UK choke on a 21-point lead. When the final buzzer went off in that one, you could have heard Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” playing in the heads of everyone who is a part of Volunteer Nation. It was a celebration that won’t soon be forgotten.

    It may soon be repeated.

    Kentucky head coach John Calipari knows all about expectations. It seems like every year he brings in the best recruiting class in the nation, and he’s expected to take a group of hyper-talented players, blend them all together, keep everyone’s ego and pro aspirations in check, and win and win and win. Anything short of a national championship is a disappointment with a program that sees fans tattoo perfection on themselves before the start of Midnight Madness.

    But it’s not that easy.

    Sometimes the formula works. Coach Cal went to the Final Four in 2011 and won the national title in 2012. He went to the title game in 2014 and the Final Four again in 2015, losing to Wisconsin to end UK’s run at an unbeaten season.

    Sometimes the formula doesn’t work. The year after that title run in 2012, Cal’s ‘Cats went 21-12 and washed out in the first round of the NIT. That was with guys like Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Alex Poythress on the roster. Noel tore his ACL in mid-February, but he still managed to go No. 6 overall in the NBA Draft.

    Nobody cared that Cal had lost six players, including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to the NBA a year earlier. Nobody weeps for the fallen Goliath.

    Cauley-Stein and Poythress became anchors for last year’s 38-1 team, and Poythress is still around, suffering through another shaky season.

    The question for Calipari as we head into February is whether the 2015-16 season is going to look more like that 2012-13 season or like the 2013-14 campaign.

    In 2013-14, six McDonald’s All-Americans came to Lexington, but the team didn’t blend early. It stumbled to a 12-6 record in the SEC, but guys like James Young and Julius Randle and Aaron and Andrew Harrison got hot late, and UK didn’t lose until Connecticut took the Wildcats down in the national title game.

    UK still has four burger boys on the roster, including veterans Poythress, Marcus Lee and guard Tyler Ulis, but all of them are playing different roles. Freshman Guard Isaiah Briscoe is doing his best to find his place, and freshman Jamal Murray has been a star.
    Still, inconsistency continues to be a huge issue for UK. Most teams work out the bugs during the non-conference season. Kentucky hasn’t done that yet.

    The inconsistency was on full display vs. Tennessee Tuesday night when UK roared out to a 21-point first-half lead, kept the ball moving and played tough defense. But the immature Wildcats—and that’s what this is really about, folks—let off the gas, allowed UT to gain some momentum and never grabbed it back.

    When the dust settled, Kentucky was hanging its head and walking off the court as the fans celebrated around them.

    The loss to Tennessee could take Kentucky one of two ways.

    One direction will make the Wildcats look in the mirror, realize they have to play with more heart, more consistency and more focus. It will convince players to put their personal agendas aside and realize they still have a chance to do something special like the 2013-14 team did.

    The other direction is all of the above, but the exact opposite.

    People love to say Calipari doesn’t really have to coach considering all the talent he has at his disposal, that he can just roll the ball out and the wins will come. He has a chance to prove them wrong (just like he did two years ago) by getting his guys focused.

    It won’t be easy, but Kentucky still has a chance to be dangerous in March. The first people they need to convince of that fact might be themselves.

    MORE: AP Top 25 Look Ahead, Week 13


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