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Calipari embraces "players first" approach, but it comes with an asterisk

Jack Pilgrim01/16/21

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Article written by:On3 imageJack Pilgrim
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Kentucky head coach John Calipari has dug himself a hole, and it doesn’t appear he’ll be climbing out anytime soon.

After starting the season 1-6, the program’s worst since the 1926-27 season, UK rattled off three straight wins to open conference play at Mississippi State, vs. Vanderbilt and at Florida. Right when you thought the Wildcats were picking up steam, they followed it up with back-to-back losses to Alabama and Auburn, with the former being a 20-point beating at Rupp Arena – the worst home loss of the Calipari era – and the latter being a head-scratching defeat in a game the Tigers shot just 37% from the field and 17% from three.

The team was this close to reaching the surface, ready to take a deep breath and swim back to shore. After picking up an eighth loss on the year and opportunities for quality wins dwindling down, though, it feels they’ve been tugged back down underwater. And Calipari may be the anchor pulling them down, at least in the short term.

Calipari, a Hall of Fame coach with a national championship under his belt, deserves the benefit of the doubt more often than not. With one title, four Final Fours and seven Elite Eights in 11 seasons as Kentucky’s head coach, it’s hard to be too critical about falling short of expectations every now and then. He’s been a damned good coach and a damned good face of the program.

This year? Things have just felt… different. The coaching has left much to be desired, and he hasn’t been any better on the PR side of things. Between in-game adjustments, lineups, substitutions, and rotations in general, Calipari has seemed lost and desperate time and time again through 12 games. And then when answering questions about said coaching decisions, the head coach who has seemingly always had the answers over the years has been left speechless.

Those on- and off-court struggles reached a new height during Kentucky’s 66-59 loss at Auburn on Saturday, and they only continued in the aftermath. During the game, Calipari unsuccessfully experimented with three-big lineups, kept the game’s two leading scorers on the bench to open the second half, and continued to force-feed the players struggling most at the top of the rotation, among other frustrating decisions.

Per usual, the leash was kept long for the struggling starters, but short for the productive bench players. Rewind, repeat.

After the game, Calipari’s hypocritical rationale was met with heavy (and well-deserved) criticism.

“What you’re trying to do is, I’m not trying to —I want to win every game I coach, but the other side of it is, I’m not trying to take anybody’s heart away,” Calipari said when asked about keeping Dontaie Allen and Jacob Toppin – Kentucky’s two leading scorers at halftime – on the bench to start the second half. “We didn’t start the half that badly, so that wasn’t the case. It isn’t like you’re subbing quarterbacks. He played a bad quarter so I’m going to play this other quarterback. You don’t coach that way. What you do is you sub them in.”

“I’m not trying to take anybody’s heart away.”

What does that mean, exactly? Because, when you watch Calipari coach and hear him speak off the floor, that certainly doesn’t apply for all players. It only applies to his top-of-rotation five-star talents and star transfers, not those fighting for minutes and shots off the bench.

This is the same coach who, when asked about Dontaie Allen’s one-minute allotment during Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina, told reporters, “I could’ve (played him) today, but I’m giving these guys that are in front of him the room that they need to be able to miss shots. … You try to give them room and encourage them to shoot.”

After failing to play Allen a single minute in the Louisville game, Calipari made up some excuse about not playing guys in the second half if they didn’t play in the first, which still makes zero sense.

“There were two times I thought about putting him in, once in the first half, which, I wish I would have because I would have been able to play him in the second half,” Calipari said. “If I don’t play a guy in the first half, and it goes on, you know. But he’s gonna have a chance; it just wasn’t tonight. And I coached the game to win. That’s all I did.”

It took a sprained ankle for Terrence Clarke and six consecutive losses for Calipari to even think about giving Allen extended minutes. And when he finally did, the redshirt freshman dropped 23 points on 7-11 shooting from three to will Kentucky to a double-overtime victory at Mississippi State.

And if we’re being totally honest, would Calipari have benched freshman guard BJ Boston at the end of regulation and the entirety of both overtime periods the same way Bruiser Flint did had he not gotten himself ejected with nine minutes to go? 17 of Allen’s points were scored after that moment.

My gut says no.

Just today alone, Calipari failed to put Allen – who led the team in points at halftime with eight – in the second half until the 13:42 mark, and then pulled him out at the 10:43 mark. Back in with 7:57 to go, back out with 6:20 remaining. Back in with 5:36 to go, out at the 4:00 mark. In with 2:18 remaining, out at the final buzzer.

Never more than three minutes of continued play in the second half, and Calipari’s reasoning for it was that Allen passed up too many open shots.

“At the end of the day, we were running plays for Dontaie and he wouldn’t shoot the ball,” Calipari said. “That’s why I took him out the first time. One time we ran two things for him with shots and he wouldn’t take them.”

Oh, he also highlighted Allen’s defensive breakdowns for the umpteenth time this season.

“Dontaie got great looks in the second half. He got fouled, but they were going at him defensively. We had a lot of breakdowns and could have changed lineups. At the end of the day, we got out-toughed.”

Since when are occasional defensive breakdowns and a lack of shot attempts more harmful to a team than wide-open misses, poor shot selection and turnovers?

In an ideal world, they’re not. In Calipari’s world, that’s another story.

And the stubbornness extends well beyond Allen. Toppin has been in the same boat throughout the season and again tonight, finishing with 10 points (3-4 FG), six rebounds and one steal in 22 minutes. Along with Allen, he was carrying the Wildcats going into halftime, but still didn’t see the floor until the 15:27 mark because Calipari “(wasn’t) trying to take anybody’s heart away.”

Elsewhere, Calipari pulled Devin Askew from the starting lineup when he was going through his early-season struggles. He responded well and has since rejoined the first five, but there was an adjustment there. Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware have seen their minutes fluctuate with fluctuating production, as one would expect. Even Olivier Sarr, who has maintained a longer leash for the most part this season, has found himself on the bench for extended periods in a handful of games.

As for those at the top of the rotation, Boston has yet to play fewer than 25 minutes in a game this season, while Clarke – who has missed five consecutive games with an ankle injury – played in 31 minutes or more in the five games he was completely healthy, along with 25 minutes in the North Carolina game prior to injury. The top-ten recruits have been granted the freedom to work through mistakes unlike any other player on the roster, even if the production and efficiency hasn’t followed.

I’m not trying to take anybody’s heart away,” he says, not realizing this unwritten rule only applies to a select few. Calipari is the first one to tell you he’ll do whatever it takes to put the team first – he sent a player home to “reflect and do some soul searching to get his priorities in order” to reset the locker room back in December – but his rotations and substitutions continue to tell another story.

“Players first,” sure, but that approach has come with an asterisk this season. And sitting at 4-8 on the year with hopes of an NCAA Tournament birth slipping through the team’s fingers, it’s clear that approach simply isn’t working right now.

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