What’s your favorite regular season memory from the John Calipari era?
Was it in a thundering Rupp Arena against a rival? Or in a vacation spot against a blue blood? Or maybe complete domination? Calipari is better known for his postseason wins (and woes, as of the recent past) but there are a handful of regular-season games Kentucky fans will remember as fondly as some of the prominent postseason triumphs, so I attempted to compile the best list of five that I could. (For the record, the win in 2016 vs. UL is the first out/honorable mention; the Bronx Salute Game as I called it last Sunday, Pitino’s farewell and legitimately the most competitive, well-played game by both sides since Calipari arrived).
5. Blowing Out No. 1 Tennessee (2018-19)
Kentucky’s 2019 season was two-thirds defined by Duke’s opening day 118-84 pulverization.
Having been in the Bahamas for Kentucky’s dominant foreign sweep, the Duke debacle was as disappointing a single game result I’d suffered (give me 10 Evansville’s!). Lexington’s basketball mojo didn’t return until the top-five College GameDay matchup with top-ranked rival Tennessee, where the ‘Cats crushed the Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield Volunteers, finally.
Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington delivered. Johnson, never the consistent one, sparked the initial barrage with 11 straight points in the middle of the first half, including three triples. Washington dominated from tip to finish, usurping pole position in the SEC Player of the Year race by dropping 23 points on Grant Williams via a smattering of taciturn post-moves, jump-hooks and spot-up jumpers–and he held Williams to just four shot attempts!
At a particular moment, perhaps during the crest of Kentucky’s early-second-half demolition, Hagans broke away and dished to Johnson for a finish at the rim (no, it actually wasn’t blocked this time), prompting Jay Bilas to yip the quote of the year: “this is the team everyone thought was number one coming into this season,” as Johnson roared after putting Kentucky up 20+ against a rival and number one team in the country. Bilas was dead on. That was Kentucky’s peak performance in 2019.
4. The Block vs. North Carolina (2011-12)
A matchup between top-five teams: Kentucky, who held the spot at the time, and North Carolina, who was ranked No. 1 in the preseason.
These were two of the best teams of the early 2010s; Carolina had Tyler Zeller in his final year, No. 1 recruit Harrison Barnes, assist-hawker (9.8 per game!) Kendall Marshall and versatile center John Henson (with Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and PJ Hairston on the wing, in case you wondered). Kentucky obviously had the title group spearheaded by its frontcourt of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones.
Carolina led for most of the top-five bout, in Rupp no less, as Jones and the Kidd kept Kentucky afloat on the scoreboard. And MKG was full guerilla tactics by the second half, controlling the paint with bone-bruising physicality and Rodman-minded every ball is mine rebounding effort, so this game was a war to the wire. But with five minutes left, Kentucky had clawed to a 63-62 lead, and Doron Lamb made two contested threes (both off M-Teague feeds) over the next 100 seconds to push the lead.
From there, Kentucky let UNC back in the game, leading by just one with 14 seconds left and Carolina staring down the UK basket. So, of course, when T. Jones abandoned Henson to double Zeller, leaving Henson open for the final shot…the quiet and not-playing-his-best future champion/MOP/POY/Wooden Winner/no. 1 pick made his lone huge play…rotating back to lightly block Henson’s potential game-winner. And Davis blocked the ball into his own hands instead of swatting it twelve rows deep and giving UNC another opportunity. Maybe the defining Davis play next to the alley-oop and ensuing “this is my state!” declaration in the Final Four vs. Louisville.
3. UCLA and the 41-7 First Half
Embodied everything both cool and elite on the court for the 38-1 2015 Wildcats.
This wasn’t East Tennessee State or VMI or Bethune Cookman, this was the sole competition in the all-time National Title race; this was UCLA–and just two years before De’Aaron Fox’s liquidation of the three-seeded Lonzo Ball squad in ’17–so this team didn’t suck wholeheartedly. Hell, they started two guys who got minutes in the 2019 NBA finals (Norman Powell and Kevon Looney).
Andrew Harrison was in total control at point guard from the tip. Guys got the ball where they wanted and came back and competed on the other end of the court, subduing the Bruins to an eight-minute defensive waterboard. Before the White Platoon touched the hardwood, Kentucky was up 16-0 thanks to Andrew’s robust play and typically flawless defense.
When Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker came in–who were able to run next to an already-humming Harrison–with Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, another 8-0 run turned up in a matter of seconds, this time 100 percent the courtesy of Devin Booker’s pair of threes and breakaway dunk. That’s 24 points before UCLA decided to actively participate in the scoreboard.
That 38-1 Kentucky team was a visceral experience in person; they redefined the ceiling of one-and-done/five-star recruit basketball with exotic ideals such as selflessness, statistical sacrifice and team defense–laying total waste to a bunch of fellow 99th-percentile athletes while flashing crooked smiles and receiving them back from every sorority girl on campus. It just sucks how it ended.
2. Kevin Knox’s West Virginia Comeback
This West Virginia team rocked. They pressed like a peak Pitino team but full of blue-collar seniors from the mountains of West Virginia, led by defensive ace and All-American point guard Jevon Carter along with behemoth rim-wrecking center Sagaba Konate.
Carter got the contest started by pilfering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who struggled all night with the press, and flipped the ball to Konate who did what he does and double-fisted the rim Shaq-style. A minute or so later, Carter hit his first of several pull-up threes and set Konate up for a second dunk, sending Mountaineer faithful into full delirium.
Konate then proceeded to block shots in four consecutive UK possessions as Carter splashed another three and Covington native Beetle Bolden drilled one of his own. And then right before the halftime break, Carter and Bolden hit a pair of threes from at least a yard behind the arc to give WVU a 17-point lead as Dan Schulman bellowed, “and it’s allllll Mountaineeeeeeers!” It was.
The lead crested at 17 several times, but finally, at 54-37, Knox stroked a triple, picking up where he left off after an unusually aggressive first half. His three sparked a 23-2 Kentucky run punctuated by Knox’s transition slam (where I think his head cleared the rim). The threes, breakaway scores, half-court scoring, everything stemmed from Knox’s top performance as a ‘Cat.
Beetle Bolden rang up a trio of totally-out-of-his-gourd jumpers in response to sustain WVU’s blistering shooting but Knox always responded, and on his final lead-taking three, a very similar left-wing trey to the one we’ll talk about in a second…he dropped the big balls dance. It was Kevin’s night. And I can’t remember more victories I just purely enjoyed, knowing it was probably the peak of the season–which it was–and so unexpectedly.
1. Malik Monk’s 47 vs. North Carolina (2017)
The two best teams in the country at the time and at the end of the season, whose buzzer-beater-decided Elite Eight bout was just the second-best game of the two Carolina/Kentucky contests in 2017. The prequel to Luke Maye’s miracle heave yielded the glitziest college basketball game of the past half-decade, with the two most talented college squads in America each surpassing 100 points in 40 regulation minutes…and one Malik Monk dropping a 47-point jump-shot blitzkrieg Kentucky fans hadn’t seen since Jodie Meeks. And I was there for it–a Christmas in Vegas neutral site getaway between the two winningest basketball programs in NCAA history.
There is no getting over how great this game was: Malik Monk netted 47 in the game of his life, De’Aaron Fox recorded 24 points and 10 assists amid several crowd-kindling dunks; North Carolina’s star wing Justin Jackson popped for 34 while point guard Joel Berry recorded 23 of his own. Four of America’s premier players at the peak of their powers.
Of course, the reason it’s included on this list: Kentucky won. Even with Monk’s 47, Carolina hung on like a 12-year-old tubing sensation, taking what felt like an unjust lead late in the second half off of a Jackson three. Nevertheless, following consecutive misses by both teams, Fox sprinted down the court with the ball, under a minute left, and Kentucky trailing 101-100. Fox flung the ball to Monk flanking the left-wing, who caught it, did a dancy jab-step and then released an iconic game-winner. Monk’s blowout (the good kind) catapulted his stardom past even Lonzo for a few weeks, making him the biggest thing in college basketball. Kentucky hasn’t had that since.
WATCH the obscene highlights from The Godfather of regular-season college basketball: