“Hey, Coach, is Richie gonna play tonight?” For years this was the number one question on every single Kentucky basketball call-in show in the late 80s. For those of you too young to remember, “Richie” is former Kentucky Wildcat basketball player Richie Farmer, and he may be the most beloved player to ever wear the Blue and White to only average 7.6 points per game.
Why the popularity for a kid with such a meager scoring average? Well, a lot of it had to do with the fact that Richie grew up in Manchester, Kentucky, deep in the heart of the mountains of eastern Kentucky, where he led tiny Clay County High School to the 1987 Kentucky State Basketball Championship. A game in which they defeated Louisville Ballard who happened to have a future NBA superstar named Allan Houston.
By the time Richie finished his senior season in another clash with Ballard in the state finals (this time Clay Co. lost but Farmer set a title game record with 51 points), tens of thousands of Kentuckians had seen him play, and fallen in love with his game. They couldn’t wait to see him suit up for their beloved Wildcats in Lexington and show the world how a Kentucky boy can ball.
Flash forward to 2020, where before the season started the average Kentucky fan had never seen a single minute of John Calipari’s incoming freshman class play basketball, or even know what they look like. I’m not sure if before the season started I could tell Terrence Clarke from Sir Basil Clarke (for you history nerds he was an English war correspondent during WWI).
Can you tell which of these “Clarke’s” plays basketball for the University of Kentucky?
For decades, fans of Kentucky basketball would spend 4 years getting to know players at the high school level, and then another 4 years seeing them play at Kentucky. Every March, thousands of people come to Rupp Arena, not to watch their Cats, but to watch the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen – the high school state tournament where the winners of each of Kentucky’s 16 regions come together to determine who is the best team in the bluegrass. Part of the attraction of this tournament for many years, was the opportunity for fans to come and scout future Wildcats play. Yes, I said scout.
Because we Kentuckians don’t just WATCH high school basketball games, we are scouting players; analyzing strengths and weaknesses, figuring out how their game will translate to the next level, and even looking for a diamond in the rough that could be the next Kentucky superstar. Not that John Calipari needs extra scouts, but if he ever did, he could do worse than just calling up a random Kentuckian in the phonebook to ask for their opinion on that shooting guard at Johnson Central, or big man from Marshall County. (Did I really just say phonebook? Boy, I am old.)
Unfortunately, over the last 30 years since Richie Farmer played his last game, Kentucky fans have seen a steady decrease in the number of in-state players signed to play for the Big Blue. Our state simply hasn’t produced the talent to earn the 5-star rankings that UK coaches desire. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t quality players to be found.
To this day, I think the nail in the coffin for Tubby Smith’s tenure, was that he failed to recruit 2004 Kentucky Mr. Basketball Chris Lofton. Lofton became a LEGEND in Kentucky, much like Richie Farmer, by leading Mason County High School to a state title his junior year (in which he dropped 39 points in the title game) and a runner-up finish his senior year. Tubby never even game him an offer. Instead, Lofton signed with archrival Tennessee and torched us for the next 4 years. Tubby only made it another 3 of those years, as Kentucky lost in the Elite 8, the 2nd round, and 2nd round again in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile Lofton was lifting Tennessee to higher rankings and better tournament seeding. The dissatisfaction in the fanbase boiled over to the point that Tubby had to be let go.
Chris Lofton made Sports Illustrated covers. Tubby Smith searched for fax cover sheets.
So why do I tell you all of this and how does it relate to John Calipari and this year’s team? I’m glad you asked. For his first 6 seasons at Kentucky, Calipari could do virtually no wrong. #1 recruits, #1 rankings, 4 Final Fours, and a national championship. We may look at the stretch from 2010-2015 as the Golden Age of UK Basketball. Taking over an NIT team and instantly turning the program back into a college basketball powerhouse, was nothing short of miraculous. Kentucky was back atop the mountain, and the fanbase seemed to have found the perfect coach. Cal just seemed to “get” what the importance of Kentucky basketball is to the state, and often talked about traveling from Pikeville to Paducah to meet with the fans.
I would have never dreamed after the 2015 Final Four ended, that it would be 5 years and counting without another trip. Something has happened. We have reached a point in recruiting at Kentucky that players leave after one year, no matter what. If they excel, they leave for the NBA because they’re a lottery pick; if they are mediocre, they leave for the NBA so that they don’t hurt their stock any further; if they are done with the “college experience” but aren’t good enough for the NBA, they leave to play in the G-League or overseas; if they didn’t get the playing time they think they deserved, they transfer. It’s a lose-lose-lose-lose for Kentucky basketball. And the fanbase is tired of it.
There has been a growing number of empty sections in Rupp Arena during each passing season. Heck, we can’t even fill up a Covid-restricted capacity of 3,000 at Rupp right now! Calipari always says, “We’ll be ready by March!”, but does that mean we should accept awful basketball from November-February? And then when you put all of your eggs in the March basket, and don’t make a Final Four for 5 years (and counting), it can make for an extremely frustrating experience for the fans.
What this program desperately needs are role players. Guys who will stick around for 2, 3, dare I say, 4 YEARS! For the vast majority of players who come into our program, they are using it as a stepping-stone. But there is one group of players who don’t follow this mindset, and those are players who grow up in-state, idolizing UK basketball, and dreaming of wearing the Blue and White, even if it means playing a lesser role.
Calipari has recruited role players from outside Kentucky the last several years, but they haven’t panned out. Charles Matthews, Jemarl Baker, and Johnny Juzang all could have been important pieces by their junior or senior year, but none of them wanted to stick around that long. And who could blame them? It is clear that not all players are created equal in the eyes of John Calipari. His prized 5-star recruits are allowed to play through mistakes, turnovers, and missed shots. But if Johnny Juzang missed one shot, he was out. When Jemarl Baker fouled an Auburn player in the Elite Eight in 2019, Cal screamed, “I CAN’T PLAY YOU!”, and never let him back in the game. Not surprisingly, Baker never played another game at Kentucky.
The two most successful role players in the Cal era both grew up in Kentucky. Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis waited patiently and were huge factors in Kentucky’s 2017 Elite 8 team their senior years. Hawkins became a lock down defender who could guard the other team’s best player. Willis became an excellent spot-up 3-point shooter and rebounder. They stuck around, worked hard, and figured out what it was they could do at a high level and focused on that. They didn’t try to be something they weren’t. They could have transferred, and nobody would have blamed them, but they didn’t. They loved being a Kentucky Wildcat.
Derek Willis proposed to his girlfriend on UK’s senior night. I propose Calipari recruit more players like these two.
At the time of writing this, the Cats are 1-5, and things are not looking optimistic for the rest of the season. As someone who has lived and breathed every single basketball game for the last 30 years, I find this brand of basketball unwatchable. I also used to be able to tell you every players jersey number, hometown, favorite food, and countless other facts that seem strange to know about a person I’ve never met before.
Yet in today’s modern world where one can follow players on Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, etc., UK Athletics and Coach Calipari have somehow made it so that I know practically NOTHING about these players. There’s no connection. We don’t get to know them on a personal level. Especially when most are only here for about 6 months. And the fanbase is tired of it.
Imagine instead, this scenario. A “what could have been” for this year’s team:
What if instead of recruiting Khalil Whitney in 2019 ,who quit the team after a semester, Calipari recruited Scott County star Michael Moreno? The 6’7” sophomore who now plays for EKU, is averaging 10 points per game and shooting 35% from the 3-point line. It would sure be nice to have the flexibility of a guy who can play inside and out for the next 3 years!
What if Calipari had used one of the 2 scholarships he had left for this year’s team and recruited Justin Powell from North Oldham? The Freshman is currently putting up 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for Bruce Pearl at Auburn. And is shooting FIFTY-ONE PERCENT from the 3-point line! He was also recently names SEC Freshman of the Week. He could have been exactly what we all thought Juzang and Baker would be; a 4 year guy who can come in and consistently knock down open shots.
And here’s the kicker: What if instead of recruiting Quade Green in 2017, who quit the team halfway through his sophomore year, Calipari had recruited Paul Laurence Dunbar point guard Taveion Hollingsworth? Both play point guard, but while Green showed no general interest in being in college at all, Hollingsworth has excelled as the 4-year starter at Western Kentucky. He is currently averaging 14 points per game at Western, with a (GASP!) POSITIVE assist-to-turnover ratio. As a team, Kentucky is currently averaging 11 assists and 17 turnovers per game.
The insertion of a steady 4-year player at point guard could have completely changed the direction of this team, as right now the biggest struggle we have is taking care of the ball. Hollingsworth would immediately take that pressure off the rest of the team, could set guys up for easy shots, and get the team into some sort of general cohesiveness on the offensive end.
Of course, all of these hypotheticals are dependent upon Calipari actually putting them into the games. He already has one of the best shooters in the history of Kentucky high school hoops sitting on the bench: Pendleton County’s own Dontaie Allen.
Dear, Coach Calipari. This is Dontaie Allen. He plays for your basketball team. Please put him in games. Sincerely, BBN.
Despite the fact that UK is shooting an absolutely pathetic 24% from the 3-point line, has a 1-5 record on the season, and has nobody in the backcourt other than Davion Mintz playing consistently good basketball, Allen still can’t seem to find his way into games. Through 6 games he has 2 DNPs, and is averaging less than 5 minutes per game in the other 4 (including a measly 1 minute against North Carolina).
For years, Big Blue Nation has trusted in Cal, but the refusal to play Dontaie Allen is truly mind-boggling. He is the best shooter on a team that’s biggest struggle is shooting the ball. BJ Boston is allowed to miss 18 shots in a row, but Allen remains on the bench. Terrence Clarke is allowed to drive to the goal aimlessly, committing turnover after turnover, but Allen remains on the bench. I can only hope that Allen follows the footsteps of Willis and Hawkins and sticks this thing out. But not a single person would blame him if he decides to leave. It is clear that John Calipari has a different set of standards based upon how good you were in high school. And the fanbase is tired of it.
Calipari needs to take a long hard look in the mirror at why his teams haven’t had much success the last 6 seasons. He needs to change the culture. He needs to re-connect the program with the fans. He needs for the 395 miles between Pikeville and Paducah to actually be a recruiting base, and not just something he mentions in his stump speeches at Big Blue Madness.
Finally, I think it’s time that we as a fanbase bring back the 1980s, and start flooding Calipari’s call-in show with one question: “Hey, coach, is Dontaie gonna play tonight?”