Photo courtesy of UK Athletics, Chet White
Saint. Peter’s. Peacocks. The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, the gold standard of college basketball, lost to the freaking Peacocks. It sucked. There’s no other way to put it. Everyone wants an answer for how this happened, and many fans across Big Blue Nation are casting most of the blame for this failed NCAA Tournament on the head coach, John Calipari. What started as low rumblings from a small portion of the fanbase a few years ago, has now grown exponentially into large numbers of fans shouting from the rooftops to voice their frustration with Coach Cal.
The fanbase is now all over the place; some want him fired, others think he can do no wrong; some think he needs to change his system, others think he has proven his system has worked over the last 30 years of his Hall of Fame career. Count me somewhere in the middle. I’m not in the fire Cal camp, but also think the fans have every right to be critical of the performance of Calipari’s teams the last several years.
With all that being said, here is my list of things I wish John Calipari would change going into the 2022-2023 season. As you will see, some are serious and some are completely ridiculous, because that’s how we do things around here at Lex, Buds & Pick ‘n Roll.
#1: Calling timeouts at the end of games
If unused timeouts could be rolled over like unused sick days each year, John Calipari could spend more of his life in timeout than a 3-year-old toddler. This may have been the single most frustrating moment of the St. Peter’s game, when Kentucky had a chance to win in regulation, and the best shot we could get off was a rushed, off balanced 18-footer from TyTy Washington. We have seen this result play out time and time again, for Cal to only lament in the post-game interview that he probably should have called a timeout at the end. Cal defends his logic by saying that he doesn’t want to give the other team a chance to change defenses. But is it too much to ask of our Hall of Fame coach that he draw up TWO plays in the timeout? I guess it is.
Zack Morris had a supernatural ability to stop time to prevent bad things from happening. John Calipari refuses to call timeout to prevent losses from happening.
#2: Sign the dimpled basketballs
If you’ve ever stayed after a game at Rupp Arena for the post-game show, you know that Calipari graciously will sign autographs on basketballs during the show. Yet he always asks fans to not give him a “dimpled” ball to sign because it “ruins his pens.” Coach, you make $9 million a year, you can afford a new Sharpie after each home game.
#3: Run an occasional inbounds play
If you are even a casual observer of Kentucky basketball, you have probably noticed that John Calipari almost always runs the exact same inbounds play (calling it an actual play is very generous), in which the ball is lobbed to the power forward standing in the corner of the floor with his arm out. I’m no statistician, but I would estimate we run this play 99.97% of the time. It has become so predictable that it even cost us the game at Auburn, when Keion Brooks had to push off his defender to try and get the ball because everyone knew where it was going.
I once got to sit in the front row at a UK game, and stole John Calipari’s white board after a timeout. This is what it looked like. Please note the timeout was for television, Cal didn’t actually call one.
#4: No more talking down to fans
One of Calipari’s most quoted catch phrases is “you people are crazy!” We hear it every year at Big Blue Madness, and countless times throughout the year when Big Blue Nation brings the energy for a big game, and Cal always has a big grin on his face every time he says it. Recently however, the tone of Calipari’s message to the fanbase has changed. He singles out the “true fans” in his messages, and scolds anyone who says anything negative or dares to question his authority. Cal’s post-game press conferences often sound more like a parent lecturing their children than discussion of the actual game. It’s a far cry from the man who claimed to be “one of us” when he was first hired. How many times did we hear about his blue-collar roots growing up in rural Pennsylvania, being much like the people of eastern Kentucky. Now, to Calipari, it seems he thinks everyone is a Basketball Benny, who should just be grateful for having him as the head coach.
#5: Take out the trash more often
John’s wife, Ellen, has become famous on Instagram for her witty humor and hilarious pokes at her husband, usually referred to as her “roommate”. Multiple times Ellen has criticized her roommate for never being around to take out the trash, and pictures of the Calipari Rosie & Herbie on the side of the street with a caption about how she once again had to take them out get thousands of likes. Happy wife, happy life, Coach. Who knows, maybe taking out the trash more often might lead to seeing “Swaggy Cal” more often, improve the overall morale of the team, make them less stressed during games, and lead us to the promised land once again!
#6: Admit that the SEC Tournament is a big deal
No matter how much John Calipari tries to preach to fans that the SEC Tournament doesn’t matter, this is one battle he will never win. Many fans save up all year to make the trek to Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, or wherever the Cats may be in March. For many, it is their family vacation. It is also when our fanbase is at it’s VERY BEST. It’s an opportunity for the players to play in front of rowdy, raucous, home environment. One that they rarely experience in Rupp Arena playing in front of the “I’m here to be entertained” blue hairs. It matters to fans if we lose to Tennessee in the semi-finals, and we want it to matter to our coach too. Plus, there is factual evidence that performing poorly in your conference tournament correlates to poor performances in the NCAA Tournament. No team has ever won the title without winning at least one game in their conference tourney. But Calipari continues to decry that playing 3 games in 3 days doesn’t prepare you for the Big Dance. Which also leads me to…
#7: Play in non-conference tournaments again
Cal hates non-conference tournaments because (stop me if you’ve heard this before), playing 3 games in 3 days doesn’t prepare you for March. Instead, Calipari believes that scheduling a slate of home games against Poop State, Southwest Eastern North Dakota, and a team coached by his former ball boy in the UK Invitational somehow does prepare his team for March. These games always get poor attendance numbers (and Jerry Tipton will be sure to take a picture of it), and create a lackluster environment. Fans LOVE seeing Kentucky play against other good teams in other conferences, and throw in a chance to travel to Maui and it’s a win-win! You’re telling me the players wouldn’t like to go to Hawaii? It creates memories that will last a lifetime, even for fans. The Jeff Brasssooooow tip-in is one of the best Wildcat memories I’ll ever have. Now Cal’s stubbornness is making us miss out on another great tournament, the Phil Knight Invitational. Which this year will feature Michigan State, North Carolina, UConn, Villanova, and Oregon. Doesn’t that sound more fun than playing another directional school?
If for no other reason, Cal should go to Maui so we never have to see another one of these tweets from Jerry.
#8: Run a more modern offense
It’s hard to believe that at one time, John Calipari was viewed as one of the most innovative offensive coaches in the country when he was lighting up scoreboards with the dribble-drive. Kentucky’s offense has become painfully difficult to watch at times during the last several years. Here is an example of a typical Kentucky offensive possession:
- 5 seconds of Calipari screaming “GO!”.
- 15 seconds of Kentucky running a 3-man weave at the top of the circle, while not even attempting to make a basketball move to score the ball.
- 5 seconds of whoever has the ball trying to take his man one-on-one but running into a paint full of big men.
- Player is unsuccessful at getting a good shot so he passes to someone who else who then has little to no time to do anything with the ball. A contested shot is taken in hopes of getting an offensive rebound to score.
It’s now to the point that many NBA scouts find it hard to evaluate how UK’s guard will do in the NBA, because they will have so much more room and freedom to score in the league. After the loss to Saint Peter’s, ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony tweeted that “Almost no one (successfully) plays this style of cramped offense anymore, anywhere in the world.” It’s hard to disagree. I would have loved to have seen a lineup with 4 shooters and Oscar on the floor last year.
#9: No more “I haven’t seen him” injury updates
My hope is that one day when gambling on college sports becomes more acceptable, that teams will be required to give accurate and updated injury reports ahead of their games. Until that time, I guess we are stuck with the mumbo-jumbo that Cal gives. This whole thing seemed to really start in 2019 when PJ Washington suffered a foot injury before the tournament and had to miss Kentucky’s first and second round games. As media and fans begged for information on PJ at the most critical time of the year, the usual response from Calipari when asked for an update was “I haven’t seen him today. I’ll let you know when I see him.” BS. Don’t feed us a garbage line like that. What makes it worse, is now Cal and the entire coaching staff thinks it is cute to say “I haven’t seen him” anytime a player has any type of injury. Look, I know you don’t want to give opposing teams the advantage of knowing whether they will play or not, but please, I am begging, just say that. No more “I haven’t seen him”, because we all know that is a load of bologna.
John Calipari turns into Hellen Keller whenever he is asked for an injury update.
#10: Be Less Stubborn, Be More Flexible (especially on defense)
To say that John Calipari is stubborn as a mule wouldn’t be fair to mules. The man does not give an inch when it comes to his philosophy of how to manage a basketball game. Nowhere is this more evident than on the defensive side of the ball, where his team’s defense begins and ends with man-to-man. But in many cases, over the course of an 18-game conference season, SEC teams begin to figure out how to attack and exploit any holes in Kentucky’s defense, and in these cases, Cal needs to be willing to switch things up a bit. There is no better example than UK’s loss to Tennessee in this year’s SEC Tournament. Trailing by double digits nearly the entire game, and trailing by 9 when Oscar fouled out with 3:37 left, Cal got desperate and started to press. And lo and behold, they forced some turnovers and had a chance to get back in it (cutting the lead to as little as 3). Had he tried this earlier, maybe the outcome would be different. Even Coach K at Duke wasn’t afraid to go zone on occasion in recent years. In fact, it was Duke’s zone defense that propelled them over Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. Sometimes just a simple change in defense can get the other team out of rhythm, but UK opponents never have to worry about this, as they know exactly what to expect on that side of the ball for all 40 minutes. And while we are on the stubborn train, maybe occasionally leave a guy in when he picks up his 2nd foul in the first half.
#11: Wear a suit
To quote Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, Calipari needs to suit up! I know Covid made us all relax our wardrobes a little bit, but when I am old and gray, I will remember John Calipari with the slicked hair and the most flawless suits I have ever seen. Cal’s suits showed that he was different from the hundreds of polo/pullover/dri-fit wearing coaches across the country. The suit showed he was a force to be reckoned with, a one-man army who played by his own rules and was going to come to your town and beat your team. Cal just doesn’t seem quite as “swaggy” in a jumpsuit. And since Covid when his dress code became so relaxed, we have 1 missed NCAA Tournament and 1 first-round NCAA Tournament loss. This can’t be coincidence.
#12: Find a way to beat Rick Barnes
Rick Barnes owns John Calipari right now. That was a sentence I never dreamed I would ever write. But right not, it is facts. Tennessee is 10-7 against Cal since Rick Barnes took over. And not only is Tennessee taking care of business at home with five wins in Knoxville, but they have three wins in Lexington (2018, 2020, 2021) and two in the SEC tournament (2019 and 2022). This is just unacceptable. After Duke’s loss to UNC in the Final Four dropped Coach K’s record to 50-50 against the Tar Heels, many criticized how a Hall of Fame coach couldn’t do better than breaking even against his biggest rival. Well, right now, I would be ecstatic if Calipari could find a way to get back to .500 against Barnes. But in the last few years, Tennessee has just had a vastly superior team in terms of talent. Even their freshman last year were better than our freshman. Cal must find a way to start getting the best of our biggest conference rival.
#14: Stop saying the following:
- Basketball Bennies
- Position-less Players
- Anything at Big Blue Madness that resembles a speech or “State of the Union” address.
Stop it. Just stop it.
#15: Give some players a longer leash, give some players a shorter leash
When Johnny Juzang played at Kentucky, he knew that one mistake, one missed shot, one turnover, and he was out of the game. Then we all saw what he could do when given an opportunity to play through mistakes when he got to UCLA in 2021. 28 points against Michigan in the Elite 8, and 29 against Gonzaga in the Final Four. His 137 total points in the tournament were the second-highest in the storied history of UCLA basketball. We have all seen Calipari have an extremely short leash on players he views as “not as talented”: Derick Willis, Jemarl Baker, Dontaie Allen, etc. While the supposed “stars” can continue to make mistake after mistake and never be benched (BJ Boston and Devin Askew being the most recent examples). Sometimes letting players try to fight through mistakes isn’t the best strategy. Taking some guys out of the St. Peter’s game when they were tight and clearly struggling might have allowed them some time to regroup and come back out focused and reenergized. While also giving guys on the bench with those short leashes (Collins, Hopkins, Allen, etc.) a chance to bring some much-needed energy.
Dear John, this is what someone looks like playing basketball loose and with confidence.
#16: Go to couples counseling with Mitch Barnhart
Unlike Oscar Tshiebwe, the Kentucky basketball program is not a machine. It needs to be finely tuned with all cogs turning in the same direction in order for it to be successful. We simply can not have our head coach and athletic director moving in opposite directions, especially as it concerns to NIL deals. Whatever the issues are between these 2, it needs to be fixed, quickly. Give John and Mitch a safe place. A place where they can feel free sharing their feelings. An office they can think of as a nest in a tree of trust and understanding to talk it out.
“Couples who laugh together, last together.”
#17: No more pre-recorded radio shows
The backlash towards Calipari’s decision to pre-record the final UK HealthCare John Calipari Show after the worst loss in the history of the Kentucky basketball program was definitely earned and not given. The fact that he was out recruiting is not an excuse, I’m pretty sure he could have found time in his schedule for a 1-hour radio show. Fans deserved better than that. We were all hurting after the St. Peter’s loss, and needed to know that our coach was hurting just as much. We needed to talk to him, to be able to ask him (valid) questions and concerns that we have about the state of the program. Instead, he chickened out and used his recruiting trip as an excuse to not have to face the fans. We were left with an hour of answers to softball questions with pre-rehearsed answers. He also gets paid $9 million, in part to do this show for the fans.
#18: Improve recruiting
In the last 6 years, Calipari has had exactly ONE top-5 recruit (247 Sports recruiting rankings) to play at Kentucky (BJ Boston). During that time, Duke has had SEVEN. We have had the exact same number of top-5 recruits as Missouri, Texas, Alabama, Oregon, Georgia, Oklahoma State, and USC. We’ve all followed Calipari long enough to know that he needs that elite player on his roster, as all of his great teams have had at least one (Camby, Rose, Wall, Davis, Towns, etc.). The inability to land superstar talent has been one of the biggest reasons for the struggles we have faced the last few seasons. To give Cal credit, he got Orlando Antigua back and added Chin Coleman last offseason to help improve recruiting, but so far we have not seen a payoff in recruiting from those hires. Hopefully this changes soon with DJ Wagner, JJ Taylor, and/or Kwame Evans in the 2023 class.
We desperately need more recruits that can poop ice cream.
#19: Stop Yelling “GO!” all the time
Do any other coaches in the country have to remind their team 37 times a game to “GO!”? It is baffling me to why a Hall of Fame has to continually instruct his players to move the ball up the court faster than they currently are. You could draw two conclusions from this coaching strategy: 1.) This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed in practice. If players are not playing to the tempo of the coaches liking to the point I worry Cal is going to have an aneurism over it every single game, then that’s a deeper problem that isn’t going to be fixed by yelling “GO!” during a live ball situation. OR 2.) Calipari doesn’t know what else to say, and just can’t help himself but to yell this over and over. Whatever the reason, what does all this yelling at players to “GO” really accomplish? Is Sahvir Wheeler suddenly going to stop and think, “You know what, I’ve been playing slow my entire life, thanks for telling me to go, Coach!” He is an All-SEC point guard who plays at a faster pace than just about any point guard we’ve ever had at the school. I think he knows how to GO. It seems to me the only thing that this constant yelling does is add more stress and pressure to players who are already under enough stress and pressure by playing for the most scrutinized college basketball team in the country. Yell less, instruct more.
#20: Repair relationships with the fans
If I were John Calipari’s publicist, I would tell him that this summer he should travel all over the state, “from Pikeville to Paducah”, hosting meet-and-greets, speaking at Rotary Clubs, doing pictures and autograph signings. Believe it or not, these are things that Cal did regularly for several years when he first arrived in Lexington. He even took the national championship trophy for a tour of the Bluegrass. And guess what, he is GREAT at that. Nobody can work a room like John Calipari. He could go into any town in Kentucky and leave everyone there optimistic about the future of the program and the upcoming season. And every Tom, Dick, and Harry would say, “You know what, that Calipari guy is alright.” But when you hide out in your Richmond Road mansion and don’t ever talk to fans, or when you do it’s the same rhetoric we always hear, people get cynical. It even leads to people writing articles about all the things you should do different as a coach.
But it’s much harder to critique someone that comes to your town to meet you in person. It also takes Calipari out of his bubble where he never hears the fans concerns. The people of this state love their basketball team. When the Cats lose, we hurt. When the Cats win, we are on top of the world. Fans just want to know that the man running the ship is as emotionally invested in this thing as we are. Even if Cal were to ignore every other thing on this list, just getting back in touch with the fans would make a huge difference in the overall morale of the Big Blue Nation.