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The NIT? I Thought We Were Past This?

The NIT? I thought we were past this.

When John Calipari was announced as the head coach of Kentucky basketball, he spoke of “restoring Kentucky to its rightful place at the top of college basketball”. He was, of course, referring to those years when Billy Gillispie was the head coach, and Kentucky had missed the NCAA tournament, and instead competed in the NIT.

Now, once again, Kentucky is heading to the NIT, one year after winning the NCAA championship.

I knew this season wouldn’t be like the last. After all, Kentucky lost 6 players to the NBA draft. That’s a lot of talent to replace. But we had a great recruiting class coming in. Nerlens Noel was rated #1, Alex Poythress was rated 13th, and Archie Goddwin was #15, according to ESPN. All put together, we had the second-best recruiting class in the nation (ESPN). And we had Kyle Wiltjer returning, who was ranked 19th in his recruiting class. I knew we wouldn’t make the championship game this year, but surely Kentucky would make the tournament. I was certain they would reach the Sweet 16, possibly even hoping for an Elite 8.

So what happened?

A lot of people will point out the season ending injury to Nerlens Noel, but that explanation doesn’t work. For starters, although Noel is extremely talented, and played with a lot of heart, one person does not make a team: 6 of Kentucky’s 11 losses came with Noel on the floor. On top of that, the loss to Arkansas, a game that Noel sat out, would have happened even if Noel hadn’t been injured. Kentucky had 18 turnovers that game, mostly because of poor guard play. A center like Noel would not have made the difference in Kentucky’s inability to handle a full-court press.

Adding salt to an open wound, Kentucky was also competing in a conference that was having a very down year. By the end of the season, only one SEC team, Florida, was ranked nationally. Only 3 teams had an RPI ranking that was higher than Kentucky’s, and 6 other SEC teams had an RPI over 100, one of which was Vanderbilt (#108) who Kentucky lost to in the SEC tournament.

In my opinion, the blame for this season lays squarely at the feet of John Calipari. If you give Calipari credit for last year’s championship success, then you have to give him blame for this year’s NIT berth. People will site that the players didn’t play with heart, that they weren’t committed to the program. But these were Calipari’s players - he was the one that recruited them. It’s not as if he walked into a gym with a bunch of kids that were complete strangers, and was told to make a team. He went after these kids, recruited them, visited their hometown schools, sought them out. He should have known the attitudes he was getting.

We are Kentucky. We should not be in the NIT. Especially, as someone so eloquently put it, the “mint” of cash our coaches make. Money not withstanding, we are a blue-blood program, one of the best of the best. We may not be in the championship game ever year, but we damn well better be in a position to challenge somebody, somewhere for it. We are Kentucky, we play to win. If that’s too much pressure for you, then I’m sure there’s a school down the road that you can cheer for.

John Calipari now has two team structure-models to reflect on in the one-and-done era. One model won him a national championship, the other, a NIT berth. People are saying, “wait till next year, wait till next year”, referring to the incoming class of super-freshmen that Kentucky has coming their way. But I offer a warning: if John Calipari does not analyze and pinpoint what went wrong this year - the nation’s #2 recruiting class failing to even qualify for the NCAA tournament - if Calipari does not adjust, you may see a repeat next year.

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