(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Unpopular opinions will probably be very prevalent in this article. Just be forewarned and get your Twitter fingers ready to come at me. I’m a big boy, I can take it.
First off, let’s get this out of the way. I was an Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach for six years at the college level. That doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. I coached at the Division III level so I have no experience recruiting the best players in the world. However, I have coached in the NCAA Tournament, I have coached guys that play professional basketball, and most importantly I have a perspective that I believe can provide something different than a vast majority of the Kentucky Basketball fan base.
Please don’t take any of that previous paragraph as acting like I am better than you. In my second year as a college basketball coach I got to live in a dorm room for free and had a meal plan to the cafeteria as part of my compensation, so it isn’t like I was ever big time. I was a Kentucky fan well before I ever became a college basketball coach. That being said, my experience has made me look at things differently.
The goal of this article will be to explain the inner-workings of a college basketball team the best I can without actually being around the Kentucky program or being in practice every day. I hope to give a little bit of perspective as to why this is the worst start to a basketball season of any living person’s lifetime.
First off, and I’ve said this over and over on Twitter, winning college basketball games is really hard. Every coaching staff has a plan to beat you. Every team has talented players. Obviously, there are levels to it, and we would expect Kentucky to ALWAYS be at the top level, but that doesn’t make any given game easier.
2020 is not a good season to have a young team. I am not one to allow the Coronavirus to be an excuse for anything because everyone is in the same boat, but it very much had an impact on the offseason. Generally, the team would be on campus in the middle of summer to work basketball camps for younger kids which gives them an opportunity to start spending time around each other. Also, there are offseason workouts–a few hours a week–that are permitted to give coaches an opportunity to be around their guys. Add in the fact that players can typically go home to spend time with their families or even just go over to Coach Calipari’s house for a cookout and pool party during the summer and you can start to see how different this year was.
To the average fan that all may seem trivial. To a college basketball coach that time can be as important as any practice leading up to the season. I know we all watch from the couch and only care about wins and losses, but at the end of the day playing college basketball (especially at the University of Kentucky) is supposed to be fun. You want to know why they did the silly rhythm step “one-heartbeat” video? Because it took their mind off of basketball for a minute. They laughed. They probably made fun of how “stupid” it was. That is the POINT! Even at 1-5 or now 1-6 you have to make it fun or it’ll turn into 1-10 really quick.
Typically Kentucky basketball players are the royalty of Lexington, especially on campus. This year, they wear masks walking to class or have to attend virtually via Zoom. When they play in Rupp Arena there are just a couple of thousand people in attendance. This group of Wildcats are experiencing all of the negative aspects of playing under the biggest spotlight in college basketball without getting to experience any of the positives.
At this point, it is obvious what the issues are. B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke aren’t quite as good as we (or Coach Calipari) expected. Probably even more importantly, Olivier Sarr has gone from an All-ACC performer to a big man who goes without a field goal in back-to-back games. There clearly were misses in the evaluation process this season. Even the most pro-Calipari fan can’t really debate that. However, do we really think Coach Cal missed on EVERYONE? First off, every other program in the country wanted these guys. So, if Coach Cal missed then everyone else was wrong too. Secondly, outside of Davion Mintz being probably as good as expected, and Jacob Toppin being a little better, literally nobody is living up to expectations. I simply don’t think that is John Calipari’s fault. That is “proof” that time is needed and it is hard to get that time when you are in the middle of the season. Lost offseason time completely blew up the traditional “process” that every new Kentucky team goes through.
I also will defend Coach Calipari on the offense to an extent. I have been as critical of it as anybody. I just posted an article earlier today calling out how much time the offense wastes with false motion outside of the scoring area. However, what exactly is the offense for a team that can’t dribble, can’t shoot, and can’t score in the post? I’ll wait… Sometimes there simply isn’t much you can do as a coach. There is no magic formula. Yeah, that means you missed in recruiting. Guess what, every coach in the country misses in recruiting more than John Calipari. Be thankful for what you have because it could be a whole heck of a lot worse.
Do you want to run a bunch of set plays? Our players haven’t shown the ability to execute at a high level even on the very simplistic sets that we do call. Do you want a traditional motion offense? Good luck with that on a team that can’t shoot. Do you want to run the Dribble Drive? Can’t do that if you can’t break your man down one-on-one. There is no amount of X’s and O’s that can make up for a lack of Jimmy’s & Joe’s.
You want to talk schedule? Let’s talk schedule. I can already hear the comments rolling in. I’m just going to say it; this schedule was insanely difficult. Here is a thought experiment for you. If Kentucky had played Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky, Lamar, and Utah Valley (all wins) and then lost to Georgia Tech, Kansas, UNC, and Louisville they would be 4-4. I picked those losses because those were the games that were previously scheduled in years past. Do you feel better about the season? I don’t trust you if you say no. The ‘Cats have played very close games against some really good teams. Only the Georgia Tech loss is “embarrassing” in my opinion and that is only due to the 17-point spread. Stacking up buy-game wins really doesn’t mean much. This season Kentucky went all-in on a gauntlet of a schedule and it bit them in the rear due to the lack of a traditional offseason.
Sure, I agree, the opponent is the one who is supposed to complain about having Kentucky on their schedule. However, I’m just here to tell you that outside of Morehead State, Kentucky has played much better teams than they typically would have played at this point in the season. Instead of four or five automatic wins we only got one this season (and don’t forget the Detroit game got postponed/canceled). It is simply wrong to think Kentucky stinks. They played #3 Kanas down the wire. They were one shot away from beating Notre Dame and Louisville (if those shots go in everyone feels different). Losing to North Carolina is something that could happen any season. I know nobody wants to hear defenses for the schedule, but I’ll be the one to do it. There is no reason to be “out” on the team at 1-6 with this schedule if you would be “in” on them at 5-2 or even 4-3 with traditional “cupcake” wins.
The last thing I want to address is the rotation. We can just cut right to the elephant in the room. Why isn’t Dontaie Allen playing? My first answer is this. Do you really think that Coach Calipari wouldn’t play Dontaie Allen if he thought he could help win a game? You have to be INSANE to think he wouldn’t. Jacob Toppin was expected to redshirt, by his own choosing, and he just played 25 minutes scoring 10 points and grabbed six rebounds against Louisville. Do you think Coach Cal isn’t willing to try anything?
None of us are in practice every day. If Dontaie Allen isn’t playing there is a very good reason why. One of the reasons could be that he played four minutes against Georgia Tech and turned it over three times. He was so uncomfortable he couldn’t even shoot when he should have. At every single level of basketball, from DI to DIII, your best players get more opportunities. The issue isn’t that Dontaie Allen should be playing. The issue is that Dontaie Allen (maybe, I don’t know the kid) expected to play as a freshman at Kentucky. If he wanted to play right away he should have gone somewhere else that recruited him as a priority.
I don’t mean for that to be so negative towards Dontaie Allen. By all reports he is a good kid and I have no doubt that he would be a role player down the road if he were to stick it out. However, Kentucky pays John Calipari $9 million dollars a year to win basketball games. The game against Louisville came down to the very last second. When exactly was he supposed to throw Allen in there? His job isn’t to give guys “confidence” so they stick around for a sophomore or junior season. His job is to win the game. If Dontaie Allen was a part of that plan he would have played.
Also, as a coach, there were games where our staff “wished” we played someone. We said it out loud. It isn’t as crazy of a quote as you think. In the heat of the moment sometimes you just don’t pull all the strings that you wish you would have after watching the film. It doesn’t mean Allen will never play, it just means he didn’t yesterday. If he sticks it out, he will get his chance. If he doesn’t, quite frankly, it wasn’t meant to be.
At the Division III level, I often dealt with recruits who were choosing between attending our school to play basketball or going to a place like Kentucky, Ohio State, or Indiana to simply be a student. Every staff I was a part of made a point of never talking a kid into playing basketball. Similarly, at the DIII level, you deal with kids choosing to quit playing basketball every season since they aren’t on scholarship. Once again, we never tried to talk a kid into playing. If a kid doesn’t want to be a part of your process then it is better for all parties that he moves on. I hope Dontaie Allen sticks it out because he will be a success story and “hometown hero” if he chooses to, but if he doesn’t it won’t be Coach Calipari’s fault. These games have been way too close to just throw a bone to a guy who isn’t ready.
There is no easy answer to being 1-6. There is ESPECIALLY no easy answer to being 1-6 at Kentucky. You are under a microscope and you have earned that microscope over decades of being the best program in all of college basketball. That tradition has certainly continued under John Calipari.
I say all of this simply to try and shed some light on what is “probably” going on behind the scenes. These guys aren’t having a whole lot of fun. Some of that is being 1-6, but some of that is the situation they have been dealt. The offense stinks, but that isn’t 100% a coaching problem; it is a result of guys not having time to develop (and admittedly not being as good as expected). The rotation is what it needs to be. If B.J. Boston, Terrence Clarke, and Olivier Sarr aren’t the best players then this season will only get worse. Playing other guys more minutes may win a single game (probably not because they are so close against good teams), but it won’t help in the long run.
I’ll hop off my soapbox and meet you in the comments and in my Twitter mentions.