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Fried Calapari: Will Coach Cal Leave or Stay at Kentucky?

Since the 2018-19 season, Kentucky basketball has been down. Every season the Wildcats come in with high expectations, and like clockwork, Big Blue fails in epic fashion.

This is supposed to be a perennial powerhouse that contends for national championships annually. Yet, Kentucky has not appeared in a Final Four since 2015. Coach John Calipari has taken the brunt of the criticism. Calipari brings flare and consistently recruits at a high level, but there have been few results for several years.

John Calipari the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats against the Louisville Cardinals
John Calipari the of Kentucky Wildcats - Andy Lyons/Getty Images/afp

The Wildcats were tabbed as a national title favorite before the 2022-23 season. UK is currently on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament with a 15-7 record and a 1-6 quadrant one record. Could Calipari’s time in Lexington be coming to an end? Let’s take a look at how Kentucky has fared, and if Cal could realistically jump ship.

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Big Blue Nation Growing Impatient

Before delving into various scenarios, it’s important to put recent seasons into perspective. It’s not as if the Cats have lacked talent in recent seasons. Since 2018, Kentucky has had four No. 2 recruiting classes, and the 2022 class was on track to finish among the best before top overall recruit Shaedon Sharpe reclassified to the 2021 class.

With a wealth of talent, Calipari has not found the same magic UK had from 2010-15. During that stretch, the Wildcats made five Elite Eights, and four Final Fours, and won the 2012 National Championship Game. Since then, Big Blue has made two Elite Eights and no Final Fours. Kentucky hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2019. The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, the 2021 squad finished 9-16 and no one can forget last year’s epic collapse.

The first-round loss to No. 15 Saint Peter’s in the 2022 NCAA Tournament officially turned the heat up on Calipari. The Hall of Fame coach has been beloved in Lexington for a long time, and he was given the benefit of the doubt for a bad 2020-21 season due to a brief offseason as COVID remained prevalent. Plus, how could you control a canceled tournament in 2020? However, there was no excuse for last season.

Losing to Saint Peter’s was one of the biggest upsets of all time and probably Kentucky’s worst loss in program history. The Wildcats had a great squad last season with the No. 2 seed, and center Oscar Tshiebwe won National Player of the Year. UK was one of three national title favorites ahead of March Madness and failed to meet expectations once again.

Fast forward to this season. The high expectations have remained the same. Tshiebwe returned as one of the nation’s best players, another talented recruiting class came in and Calipari landed guard Antonio Reeves in the transfer portal, who averaged 20.1 points at Illinois State in 2022. Kentucky was No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll and was one of the five favorites to win the national championship.

The Wildcats had a horrible non-conference stretch with losses against Michigan State (86-77 OT), Gonzaga (88-72), UCLA (63-53), and Kansas (77-68). A two-game SEC stretch against then-No. 7 Alabama (78-52 loss) and South Carolina (71-68), which ranks 255th in Kenpom ratings, officially put Big Blue Nation into panic mode. The 1-3 start to conference play was UK’s worst since 1987. Could Calipari really be done after the 2022-23 season?

The Grass Is Not Always Greener

Lance Ware #55 of the Kentucky Wildcats dunks the ball during the second half in the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks
Lance Ware #55 of the Kentucky Wildcats  – Justin Casterline/Getty Images/afp

The heat has cooled on Calipari in recent weeks. After Kentucky hit rock bottom with losses against Alabama and South Carolina, the Cats finally made some progress.

Against all odds, they took down then-No. 5 Tennessee on the road with a short-handed roster on Jan. 14. This sparked a four-game winning streak, which was snapped with Saturday’s loss against Kansas. However, Big Blue bounced back on Tuesday with a 75-66 win against Ole Miss.

Kentucky has re-entered the NCAA Tournament mix, but nearly every game from here on out is a must-win. Plus, it still feels like the Cats will not make any real noise in March, assuming they earn a tournament berth. Per NCAAB odds, UK is +4000 to win the national championship and +800 to make the Final Four.

This has been another disappointing season, but we have seen this story before. Kentucky was a No. 8 seed in its run to the national championship in 2014. The season is far from over, but regardless, Calipari is probably not going anywhere.

The simple question is who would the Cats hire? There is no clear head coach candidate for UK. The grass is not always greener on the other side. Also, Calipari has one of his best recruiting classes coming in next season, as it features three players in the top four and four in the top nine. If we are telling the same story next season, then it may be time.

For now, passionate Kentucky fans should reel it back. Rumors like Cal going to Texas are simply speculation. The program handed Calipari a lifetime contract for a reason. His personality and flash fit perfectly into the blue blood program. Don’t expect the Wildcats to be looking for a new head coach anytime soon.

The odds and predictions in the article are based on the time of writing and publication. They may differ as to when the actual event takes place.

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