There hasn’t been a coach in an eight-year span that has had the success that John Calipari has had at Kentucky.
Only twice in his eight seasons at Kentucky has Cal not made it to at least the Elite Eight. Think about that fact for a moment. No other coach can boast the same.
This list isn’t about which team was the best. I wanted to focus on which teams I enjoyed watching the most throughout the season. Obviously, success is a big factor in the joy I experienced with each team, so it’s a given that Cal’s least successful teams are going to be near the bottom and the two that I start with in the first installment had the least amount of postseason success.
#8 2012/2013- The NIT Team
Record: 21-12 (12-6 SEC)
Roster: Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Kyle Wiltjer, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays, Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood, Sam Malone, Tod Lanter, Twany Beckham, Brian Long
Postseason: First round NIT loss to Robert Morris
Postseason Player Accolades: Nerlens Noel- First Team All SEC, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, SEC All Defensive Team, SEC Rookie of the Year. All SEC Freshman Team; Archie Goodwin- SEC All Freshman Team; Alex Poythress- SEC All Freshman Team
Why They’re Here: It was a given that this team would be lowest on the list. The 2012/2013 season was a nightmare for ‘Cats fans. At the time, John Calipari was coaching his youngest team, and he had to replace an entire roster that previously won a national title. The most experienced returning player was Kyle Wiltjer, a guy that saw limited minutes in that title run.
The recruiting class that Cal had coming in featured Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Julius Mays joined the team as a graduate transfer and Ryan Harrow red-shirted the previous year for Kentucky.
As the team struggled out of the gates with losses to Duke, Notre Dame, and Baylor, it was evident that Ryan Harrow wasn’t going to cut it as the starting point guard having underperformed and missing early games due to unknown circumstances.
That left former walk-on Jarrod Polson to pick up the slack at point guard. It was also evident that while very good on defense and great at shot blocking, Nerlens Noel was going to struggle offensively as Kentucky’s best player.
Just as it looked as if the ‘Cats were about to pull things together during SEC play, Noel suffered a torn ACL at Florida after crashing into the stanchion as he completed a fastbreak play. After that, the ‘Cats were crushed by the Gators in that game and followed it up with a beatdown in Knoxville at the hand of the Tennessee Volunteers.
Although they won a couple of big games late in the season against Missouri and Florida, the team never really recovered. After bowing out in their first game of the SEC tournament in a loss to Vanderbilt, the team didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Instead, they went to the NIT and lost on the road to Robert Morris in one of the worst efforts in the John Calipari era. The book on the season was closed and not a moment too soon.
It was a shame because Nerlens Noel was an excellent college player and I think Archie had to play out of position and run the point in certain situations due to the ineffectiveness of Ryan Harrow. If Noel had stayed healthy and if Harrow had not had a meltdown, this was a tournament team, but it would have been difficult to see a ceiling past the Sweet 16.
#7 2015/2016- The Ulis and Murray Show
Record- 27-9 (13-5 SEC) Regular Season and SEC Tournament Champions
Roster- Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, Isaac Humphries, Tai Wynyard, Charles Matthews, Johnny David, Mychal Mulder, EJ Floreal, Dillon Pulliam
Postseason: Second Round Loss to Indiana in the NCAA Tournament
Signature Wins: vs. #5 Duke, vs. #16 Louisville, vs. #17 Texas A&M
Postseason Player Accolades: Tyler Ulis- SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All SEC, SEC Tournament MVP, Consensus First Team All American; Jamal Murray- First Team All SEC, SEC All Freshman First Team, Third Team All American (AP)
Players Drafted: Jamal Murray #7 to the Denver Nuggets, Skal Labissiere #28 to the Phoenix Suns, Tyler Ulis #34 to the Phoenix Suns
Why They’re Here: I really wanted to put this team higher because of how much fun it was to watch Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray work together, but in the end, this team was a bit of a disappointment. The disappointment did not land on the shoulders of Ulis and Murray, but mostly on that of the big men on the team.
Skal Labissiere came in as either the first or second ranked recruit in the country depending on which service you were looking at, but his time as a Wildcat was marred by inconsistency and a lack of physical play under the basket. Cal tried to motivate him into becoming the next Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, but it was never his style of game. Later in the season, we saw Skal play a more comfortable style of ball away from the basket hitting jumpers, but by that time, his confidence was shattered, and it was too little too late.
The rest of the bigs didn’t help the situation with Skal. Marcus Lee was in his third year at UK and offensively he was as unproductive as he was as a freshman. Alex Poythress was his usual inconsistent self- All American caliber in one game, invisible the next. And Tai Wynyard was a December surprise from New Zealand that never played a minute of the season.
Ulis and Murray carried the team with Isaiah Briscoe’s help and a late season surge from Derek Willis. The team was playing well heading into the NCAA tournament after winning the SEC. But the team was poorly seeded (4) and a second round match-up against the Indiana Hoosiers had “loss” written all over it because of IU center Thomas Bryant. The ‘Cats had no answer in the middle and thus were ousted in their second tournament game.
It was a damn shame because Ulis was one of the most beloved Wildcats of my generation. His heart and leadership were second to none in the Cal era, and it was devastating to watch him lose so early. Murray was a blast to watch shoot the ball, and I think we all appreciated everything Poythress did for the team in his four years, but it sucks losing to Tom Crean and IU.
Unfortunately, much of the blame for the way the season went can be laid at the feet Calipari. His admitted misuse of Skal was a major blunder. Skal matured during his rookie NBA season and became a very good stretch seven-footer for the Kings. If Cal had played to his strengths earlier in the season, who knows how it would have ended up at the finish.