Last night was good for John Calipari and it was bad for John Calipari.
The good: the Kentucky Wildcats won their first game since November 2020.
The bad: the team won with him off the court, Bruiser Flint calling the shots, and Dontaie Allen going bananas.
Before I dive into this article let me start with this because I know how some people may misconstrue what I’m about to write: I am in no way advocating for Bruiser Flint to take John Calipari’s job.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.
We all know that John Calipari is as good as they come as a head coach. His regular season record and tournament accolades are as good as it gets. He’s been at UK for over a decade now and has ushered in one of the most successful eras in the history of the program. He’s done it mostly utilizing one and done stars and a defensive philosophy that leaves little room for tweaking.
But his one-and-dones haven’t been cutting it this season. BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke were supposed to be superstars and, so far, neither player has translated from AAU to college. Both have the build and athleticism of elite players but neither can do the fundamental things that a basketball player needs to do in order to be successful: dribble, pass, and shoot.
Neither guy has been able to hit jumpers. Both guys revert to one-on-one AAU ball and start to force their shot when things aren’t going their way much to the detriment of the team. But both players were given long leashes and more than enough room to struggle. Calipari stuck with his stars despite his offense struggling and his team losing.
All the while, Dontaie Allen sat on the bench and watched bricked shot after bricked shot and offensive stall after offensive stall. Why was Calipari content in continuing to force something that just wasn’t working? Because he thought other guys not named Dontaie Allen needed to miss.
Clarke didn’t play on Saturday night, but Boston did. And we saw the exact same thing we’ve seen from him for the most part this season: he tried to get his while clogging the offense trip after trip.
John Calipari was going to continue down this road but, and maybe thankfully, he got ejected. Bruiser Flint took over the coaching duties and this is what he did: he benched Boston at the end of the second half and in both overtimes; he rode Dontaie Allen’s hot shooting; he stuck with a match-up zone to cover up any “deficiencies” in Allen’s defense.
And all of it worked. Every bit of it.
He went with a lineup of Olivier Sarr, Devin Askew, Davion Mintz, Lance Ware, and Dontaie Allen. This isn’t an all-star lineup of elite talent. It’s a line up of guys that have shown steady improvement. It’s a lineup of guys that look to work in the construct of team basketball. It’s a lineup of guys that hustle their tails off on every single play.
Instead of force-feeding the stars and letting them freestyle whenever things started to not go their way, Flint decided to reward the players that were all-in on playing winning basketball.
It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t pretty at times. But it was effective and it got the job done. Allen’s shooting prowess and his threat from deep opened the lane for Askew and Mintz to penetrate. It freed up Ware and Sarr in the post. All of sudden... the Cats were running an actual offense.
Defensively the zone created confusion for Mississippi State and things started to become bogged down for them. It created turnovers and fast-break opportunities. It translated defense to offense, something that John Calipari loves.
As much fun as it was winning on Saturday night, this team has a long way to go. And while Clarke and Boston have been frustrating to watch, Kentucky is going to need at least one of them to wake up and play like the five star players they are supposed to be. If not, I still don’t think this is a tournament team. If Clarke and/or Boston ever emerge, then the tournament could be a possibility.
Make no mistakes about it, Saturday was not a cure-all for this team. There is still a very long way to go. But it provided a blueprint to victory and maybe making something out of this season.
When you’ve been at a job as long as Calipari has and been as successful at it, you may get a little too comfortable in your ways and less willing to change things because what you’ve done has worked so well for so long. I’ve been guilty of this. I’m sure most of us have. It’s difficult to change or to admit you were wrong.
Maybe Bruise Flint showed John Calipari the light. Or maybe it was a one-off and Kentucky will be back to losing and Dontaie Allen was just a one hit wonder. But what Flint did worked Saturday night and it’s important that Calipari continues with it because everything he’s done up until this point has been nothing short of a disaster.