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John Calipari's Kentucky tourney flops continue as calls for his job get louder

Forty-eight men’s college basketball teams have won at least two NCAA tournament games in the past four seasons.

The sport’s most deep-pocketed blue blood, against all odds, isn’t one of them.

Eight-time national champion Kentucky is struggling to survive the NCAA tournament's opening round, let alone halt its nine-year Final Four drought. A Wildcats program that lost in the round of 64 one time from 1988-2022 now has done so twice in the past three seasons.

On Thursday, it was a catch-and-shoot specialist who played for Division II Hillsdale College last season who added to Kentucky’s misery. Jack Gohlke came off Oakland's bench to bury 10 threes, one shy of the single-game NCAA tournament record, propelling the 14th-seeded Golden Grizzlies to a stunning 80-76 upset over the heavily favored Wildcats.

This, of course, isn’t the first time in recent years that Kentucky has made an NCAA tournament folk hero out of a not-yet-well-known opposing player. Two years ago, it was Doug Edert, Saint Peter’s mustachioed sixth man, who spearheaded an improbable 15-versus-2 upset. Last year, it was Markquis Nowell, Kansas State’s 5-foot-8 Mr. New York City, who erupted for 27 points to take down the Wildcats.

The year before that Kentucky wasn’t so generous. The Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament altogether after staggering through their worst season in almost a century, going from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 faceplant.

All this will force Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart to now ask some once unfathomable questions: How much money would he be willing to pay to oust John Calipari? What is it worth it to move on from a head coach who cannot seem to recapture the magic from the first half of his Kentucky tenure when Calipari probably could have run for state governor and won in a landslide?

"Fire Cal" may have been trending on X on Thursday night, but the stumbling block is that such a move would be far from cheap. Even if Kentucky were bold enough to want to jettison a Hall of Fame coach, Calipari’s contract reportedly calls for him to be owed 75% of the remaining value of his deal. That's more than $33 million.

John Calipari and Kentucky are headed home early from the NCAA tournament yet again. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
John Calipari and Kentucky are headed home early from the NCAA tournament yet again. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images) (Joe Sargent via Getty Images)

It also doesn’t help that there’s not an obvious can’t-miss replacement who could win big and thrive in that fish-bowl environment. Baylor’s Scott Drew just announced that he is staying put after Louisville made a run at him. UConn’s Dan Hurley doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to leave Storrs. There’s always the option of throwing big money at Billy Donovan, but Kentucky has tried that before and come up empty.

What this means is that Kentucky may be stuck with a coach who no longer is the right man for college basketball’s most high-profile job. Calipari is still bringing in McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA lottery picks year after year, but it hasn't translated into success like it did in the glory days of John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.

This season, Calipari had Antonio Reeves, a fifth-year senior who scored more points at Kentucky than any other player he has coached. He had national freshman of the year Reed Sheppard, the sweet-shooting son of two beloved former Kentucky basketball greats. He had Rob Dillingham, a lethal scorer whose teammates call him Little Microwave because of his knack for heating up quickly. He had DJ Wagner, Justin Edwards and Aaron Bradshaw, all Rivals top 10 prospects in the 2023 class.

All that talent went 23-10. It produced zero postseason wins, going 0-for-2 in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

In his postgame news conference, Calipari admitted that he was “really hurting” after Thursday’s loss — for his players, for Kentucky fans and for himself.

“I just thought I had a team that could do some stuff,” he said.

Maybe that team would have done more had Calipari built around his three best weapons. Reeves, Sheppard and Dillingham didn't spend enough time together on the floor on Thursday night, just like they haven't all season.

When asked what went wrong against Oakland, Calipari called his team “anxious" but bristled at the word “tight.” He pointed to mistakes that some of his freshmen made — a missed dunk by Edwards, ill-advised shots by Dillingham, a couple of wildly overthrown passes by Sheppard.

“When you have a really young team and you look at where the mistakes come from, they were freshmen,” Calipari said.

The problem with that is it’s Calipari who chose to build mostly around freshmen when college basketball has skewed older in recent years. Only Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 have built freshman-dominated national championship teams. More recently, we’ve seen older teams rise to the top of the sport, teams with a couple of future pros but even more proven transfers.

The sport has "changed on us," Calipari admitted Thursday night. "All of a sudden it's gotten really old. So we're playing teams and our average age is 19. Their average age is 24 and 25."

To his credit, Calipari has tried to evolve with the times to some extent. His 2021-22 team was his oldest ever, built mostly around transfers and upperclassmen. All his recent rosters have each featured older transfers, including Reeves and Tre Mitchell on this team.

This season, Calipari finally embraced the 3-point shot, spreading the floor with talented guards and often even playing with only one traditional big man. The result was his best offensive team at Kentucky but his worst defensive group. The Wildcats couldn’t consistently string together stops, not in non-conference play, not in the SEC and not even against an Oakland team that had never won an NCAA tournament game before this in 26 years as a Division I program.

Will Calipari make more philosophical changes in the future? If so, it probably won't be moving away from a freshman-heavy approach.

“I've done this with young teams my whole career,” he said. “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.'

“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.”

Calipari has to change something, whether it's how he assembles his roster, how he deploys his talent or how he prepares players for the postseason. What he's doing right now isn't working.

It used to be that the biggest criticism of Calipari was letting potential national championships slip through his fingers.

Now those seem like the glory days.