John Calipari is exasperated with his Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.
For the first time in his career at UK, Cal coached a team that lost three games in a row. And in each of those games, there was a stretch when the team was not competitive.
Calipari has coached his butt off, more so than at anytime during his career at Kentucky. He’s stomped his foot, he’s yelled until he was blue in the face, and he’s tried to manage every pass on offense.
Yet, it’s not sinking in with these guys.
It’s February, and Cal is still preaching the same things he was preaching in November: Toughness, attention to detail, and competing for 40 minutes.
After the most recent loss to Texas A&M, Calipari sounded as if he has reached his breaking point:
“I get tired. You know, now I’m not 35 anymore. I get tired, but I’m not — I just got to help them figure it out. I feel bad for individual players when they play the way they did, but we’re back at work. We’re off [Sunday]. We probably all need a day off and we get back at it Monday and Tuesday and we’ve got to go down to the best team in our league. Down to Auburn. That’s what’s next for us.”
What does all of this tell me?
It tells me that Cal’s voice is falling on deaf ears. The team has tuned him out. Calipari has said that there are instances when guys aren’t listening to him on the bench.
What this team needs right now is someone with a Tyler Ulis attitude. An attitude that won’t quit. An attitude that will yank a teammate aside and get in his face whenever he lazes on a play. An attitude that wants the ball in crunch time because he has confidence in himself making a bucket.
Two of the most enduring memories that I have of Ulis are of him playing with a bloody eye against Louisville and of him bucking up to Skal Labissiere for missing a rebound. There was no player, on Kentucky’s team or on the opponent’s sideline, that would have dared step to Tyler Ulis. He was the leader, there was no questioning it, and he would drag guys with him when they were playing down.
There isn’t a player like this on the current team. No one to spread Cal’s message from the peer perspective. There are candidates to take this role but they won’t step up and take the mantle.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the most consistent player and the point guard on the team. Yet, he doesn’t have the personality to be vocal. He is a leader by example.
Kevin Knox is the most talented on the team. But like SGA, he isn’t vocal. He also has the habit of disappearing when he’s needed the most. The one time he actually showed up throughout an entire game was at West Virginia.
At one time, PJ Washington was the guy that looked to be emerging in that role. In his first three SEC games Calipari praised Washington’s toughness. He seemed like he was the one guy getting the message. Since then, he’s been invisible. He’s played five straight games with single digit points and single digit rebounds.
Every good team at Kentucky has had an emotional and vocal leader; the great teams have had more than one. John Wall, Patrick Patterson, Anthony Davis, Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns, Isaiah Briscoe, and DeAndre Liggins all played with an edge and were vocal on the court.
But Tyler Ulis was the guy that stood above all of them.
Unless a player emerges as the leader on this team, then I fear that Calipari’s coaching will be all for naught and then we will be talking about next season sooner than we would like.
Unfortunately, Tyler Ulis ain’t walking through that door.