It’s crazy to think that John Calipari is heading into his ninth season as head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats but here we are. During his time at UK he has coached some of the premier players in college basketball. Anthony Davis, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tyler Ulis are just a few of the great players that he has had the privilege of coaching.
This has helped him earn a stellar record of 259-53 in eight seasons at Kentucky, which is absolutely astounding. He’s been to the Elite Eight or beyond in every season except for one and he has been to at least the Final Four four out of eight seasons and has one national title. Outside of Coach K, no college basketball coach has had a better run.
Last season John Calipari’s Wildcats finished 32-6 (16-2) on their way to a regular season title in the SEC, a tournament title in the SEC, and a loss in the Elite EIght to eventual National Champions North Carolina, 75-73.
In all of his seasons at Kentucky, Cal witnessed one of the biggest exoduses as far as players departing. In all, the ‘Cats lost eight players to professional basketball or graduations. He is returning only one player with any big time game experience, and that’s Wenyen Gabriel.
But yet again he is bringing in some of the country’s best young talent with the number one recruiting class in the nation. Of course this is nothing new at Kentucky with Calipari at the helm; this is how he operates and he’s been extremely successful.
There are a couple of reasons why this team won’t be as inexperienced as some in the past like the 2013/2014 team. First, along with Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard at least saw some playing time.
SKJ is a five star recruit and Wynyard is a four star recruit with a great deal of international play under his belt thanks to playing for New Zealand’s national team. All three of those guys are players that know the system and should make strides, specifically Gabriel and SKJ.
Second, Hamidou Diallo figures to be one of the leaders of the team due to spending half the season with UK in 2016 and playing for Calipari in Egypt. Kevin Knox has spent time with Calipari on the court during the USA U19 trials and PJ Washington accompanied Diallo and Cal in Egypt.
Is this experience comparable to returning juniors and seniors? No but it’s as good as we can hope for at UK in most seasons.
As far as Calipari himself, he’s left with two disappointing ends in two separate tournaments. In the NCAA tournament, he watched his team battle back and tie the game after suffering questionable calls in the first half only to watch Luke Maye hit one of his last shots in the tournament. Then he lost to Team Canada in the U19 tournament and had to settle for a Bronze medal which is almost akin to sacrilege for USA basketball.
In both instances Cal lost to the eventual champ. In both instances he left questions out on the court. In both instances he took heat for “not winning with the best team”. In response to the last statement, I think UNC was the best team in college basketball last season and I think that, while Canada may not have been the most talented team, they had the most talented player and that was a damn fine collection of players.
This is the type of stuff that drives Calipari as well as most coaches. But it’s the constant questioning of his coaching ability and the doubts his detractors have about his composure in crunch time. They are quick to bring up the close losses but they don’t want to talk about the close wins.
Once again John Calipari has a lot to prove with a young team. And get used to that phrase, “young team”, because you’re going to hear it over and over again throughout the season. He has one of his most athletic and “positionless” teams that he’s had at UK.
Kevin Knox is 6’9 and can play shooting guard. PJ Washington is 6’8 and can play power forward and center. Wenyen Gabriel is 6’9 and can play three positions as well as knock down three pointers. Jarred Vanderbilt is also a player that can transition between two to three positions.
Cal has a full bag of tricks and early in the season he’s going to have to toy around with them in order to see what works and who deserves a starting spot. In my view, the only guys with guaranteed spots are Diallo, Quade Green, and Kevin Knox. Although I do think Shai Alexander will challenge Green for the point.
While there really is not a dominant team in the entirety of college basketball, the SEC looks to be much improved across the board. I will be very surprised if Cal can get out of the conference with a 16-2 record this season.
There are going to be highs and lows this season. At times , fans may be pulling their hair out wondering what in the world is going on with the ‘Cats. But, again, what’s new? It takes time with young guys.
But more often than not, Kentucky is in the thick of it when it comes to the tournament and John Calipari is going to have them ready to succeed at the next level better than any coach in the country.
Who else would you want leading this team?