[caption id="attachment_337414" align="alignnone" width="2379"] Mandatory Credit: Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Locked in his house throughout the spring and summer, Kentucky head coach John Calipari used his time staying isolated from the general public by putting his face and voice on every television, radio, live stream and podcast feed he could find, using what felt like weekly interviews to preview the upcoming 2020-21 season.
And in every media appearance, Calipari went above and beyond to hype his team up, stressing over and over again that the season had
to be played so we could see this group of Wildcats in action.
“We have to play this season, because I do have a good team,” Calipari told KSR in a July radio interview. "Whew, we gotta play. … We’re really good. We got some really good players. So I’m sitting here saying, (having a special group) has happened three or four times, but let me tell you what those teams have done. The teams you’re talking about became unbelievable teams. Teams
“We’ve got to play because I have a really good team, " the Kentucky head coach told Andy Katz of NCAA.com.
"This group, aside from being givers, sharers, servant leaders at a young age, they’re really talented. Like really
talented. … I’m excited about it, nine new guys."
At one point, Calipari even said
the only thing that could beat the Wildcats was the coronavirus.
“I’ve got nine new players on this team, and can I tell you? I’m gonna have a good
team, so we have
to play,” said Calipari. “The only thing I know we’re not beating is that virus. I’m looking at anyone else, I’m saying “Come on, bring it. Let’s go.”'
Kentucky sure did beat COVID-19, finishing the entire 2020-21 season without a single player or coach testing positive for the virus. The only game UK had canceled as a result of an issue within its own program was the matchup against Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on January 30, and that was only called off due to contact tracing issues the day before the game.
Calipari's gold standard of campus bubbles worked, certainly a fine accomplishment. Everything else to do with the season, though? A complete and utter disaster.
From the jump, Big Blue Madness was held without fans at Memorial Coliseum, failing to give players the warm welcome they're used to receiving upon joining the program. And then from there, exhibition games and the majority of early-season tune-up matchups were cut as the NCAA trimmed the fat on the schedule, keeping only nine non-conference games and 18 conference games.
In short, instead of the long offseason of practice, workouts and team bonding opportunities, teams were forced to arrive on campus late and delay team drills and scrimmages until even later, putting UK behind from the jump. And then when it came time for the start of the season, the Wildcats were thrown in with the sharks right away as opposed to the slow, gradual process we're used to seeing to open the year. UK only got one freebie in the season-opener against Morehead State, and then when the Detroit Mercy game was dropped due to COVID-19, it was full speed ahead from there.
Well, full speed ahead from a literal season standpoint. The games were played, but the team itself never got off the runway, ending the year with an abysmal 9-16 record to become the first Kentucky team to miss the ten-win mark since 1926-27 when Basil Hayden's bunch finished the year 3-13. This 2020-21 roster is also the first team to finish below .500 on the year since Eddie Sutton's 1988-89 group finished with a 13-19 overall record.
So beyond the scheduling issues and COVID-19 altering the season timeline, how did we get to this point?
For starters, the players Calipari signed last offseason simply didn't produce at the level Kentucky needed, nor did they fit into the roles they were brought in to play. Starting at the point guard position, Devin Askew was supposed to be a facilitator and catch-and-shoot threat to complement the two offensive anchors of the team in BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke. Clarke underwhelmed and got hurt early, while Boston was never consistent enough for Calipari to trust running the offense through him. That forced Askew to do more than he was capable of doing this early in his career, exposing some of the greater flaws in his game. As a result, Davion Mintz - arguably the lone consistent bright spot on the roster from start to finish this season outside of Isaiah Jackson - had to slide into the lead guard role, but did so only when it was too late in the year.
Moving down the list, Keion Brooks Jr.'s calf injury forced Calipari to start Jackson and Olivier Sarr together in the frontcourt, a clunky pairing that took quite a bit of time to build chemistry. Even with the season now in the rearview mirror, it's hard to say those two ever really fit together, as Jackson was tremendously skilled defensively, but far too raw on the other end of the floor and regularly struggled with fouls. Sarr, on the other hand, was skilled offensively and found his footing as a face-up big, but struggled with physicality and as a complete defender. And like Jackson, the 7-foot senior also struggled with fouls, putting Kentucky in a bind when the frontcourt duo went to the bench with two fouls in the first half and four fouls in the second, a common occurrence by the end of the season.
As for bench help, Brooks had his bright spots, but he wasn't the consistent go-to force many thought he could become when he decided to return for a sophomore season. When he was engaged, he was highly productive, but that killer instinct simply wasn't there often enough to take games over. Elsewhere, Jacob Toppin overachieved after originally planning to redshirt this season, but he's still viewed as a long-term project. Dontaie Allen was a game-changer when his shot was falling, but didn't make enough of an impact elsewhere on the floor when it wasn't. Lance Ware was a high-energy guy, but struggled offensively, while Cam'Ron Fletcher never made it back into the rotation after being sent home back in December.
As Calipari mentioned numerous times this season, Kentucky didn't have a single player capable of taking defenders off the dribble and dominating in one-on-one situations, especially with Clarke out. They didn't find out they had a "dagger-thrower" until midway through conference play when Mintz took over as the team's late-game clutch shooter. The team was inconsistent and - to be frank - not talented enough in the backcourt, soft and foul-prone in the frontcourt, and lacked production on the bench.
And the blame certainly isn't limited to the roster. Calipari's rotations and late-game execution were nightmarish from start to finish this season, and he seemed to only make losses worse every time he spoke during postgame press conferences. Whether it came down to injury updates, playing time questions, or late-game situational breakdowns, the UK head coach typically known for PR excellence couldn't help but fumble over his words and backtrack time and time again.
So where do we go from here? How does Kentucky move forward following arguably the worst season in program history?
Unfortunately, we don't know yet. When asked about what's next for UK and how he plans on getting the program back on the right track, Calipari only wanted to talk about the loss to Mississippi State in the opening round of the SEC Tournament.
"Not right now. Let's just talk Mississippi State," he said. "That's all I'm going to talk about because to really sit back and look at some things that went, guys that we thought, the corona."
Any adjustments to look ahead to?
"We'll look at it later," Calipari added. "This is more about this game."
OK, fine. Let's talk about the game.
Mississippi State took a 14-point lead going into halftime, matching the largest deficit for Kentucky in an SEC Tournament game in school history. In that first half, the Bulldogs nearly doubled the Wildcats in total rebounds (29-15) and tripled their total number of points in the paint, topping UK 36-12 at the break. Kentucky was bullied and abused down low, allowing MSU to throw haymaker after haymaker with zero resistance.
And then in the second half, it took yet another miraculous shooting display from Dontaie Allen - a player Calipari refused to put in the game to open the year, mind you - to simply get Kentucky back in the game, scoring 20 of his 23 total points (7-12 shooting, 5-10 from three) after the break. Taking a lead with 6:22 to go in the game, the Wildcats managed to push ahead by five points going into the final TV timeout, only to see the Bulldogs retake the lead with 2:17 to go. Sarr responded with a two-point bucket to go back on top with 1:18 to go, only to see MSU knock down back-to-back clutch free throws with seven seconds remaining to send Kentucky home.
Once again, a late-game collapse turned into a crushing loss for the Wildcats, this time costing them their season.
Considering the magnitude of this historically horrific season, it's understandable Calipari may not have the long-term answers quite yet. It was a lot to take in, plenty to process moving forward (we know, we watched it all unfold from start to finish).
When that time does come, though, it won't be sunshine and rainbows. There won't be a "well at least we..." positive spin on this disaster of a season. It will need to be an open and honest conversation about the current state of the program regarding on- and off-court coaching philosophies, recruiting momentum, draft decisions and roster management, because the current product simply isn't going to cut it for another season. The brand turned stale in a year of adversities while others managed to not only survive, but thrive.
Looking for a bright spot to close out the year? Calipari's need to go back to the drawing board is clear. There was no last-second winning effort or deep run to make all the early struggles worthwhile, no crutch to lean on to justify the embarrassing 9-16 record.
At this point, it is what it is and it was what it was: inexcusable.
And the man who made roughly $1 million per win this season gets to figure out how to fix it in the coming months.