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Kentucky basketball: Kings of Evolution

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Kentucky takes on changes better than anyone in the country.

Sea of Blue

Ok, let’s face it last year was awful. It was horrible, as Kentucky did not even make the NCAA Tournament.

Between Covid-19, several untimely injuries, and the tragic loss of Terrence Clarke, this was one of the worst Kentucky basketball seasons ever in the program’s long history.

True blues know something big is on the horizon. The thing that puzzled me was that fans questioned whether Coach Calipari would make changes? It is laughable, considering that Coach Cal has pretty much lead the charge for major changes in college sports for the last 20 years!

One may think he would sit on his hands after, by far, the most painful season in almost 100 years. To me the question has never been if a coach would make changes, the question was how big were the changes going to be?

As a college basketball enthusiast, I was looking more into the trend of today’s games and the collegiate institute rather than the individual at the helm. It’s very hard to track the patterns of an individual coach.

In order to get ahead of this, you must track the patterns of a program. Why does this program succeed where other programs fail? What makes this program at the University of Kentucky so unique compared to the other so-called “blue bloods” in this athletic arena?

It’s quite simple once we take a step back and look at the major pieces that help to make the University of Kentucky the king of evolution.

Money making Mitch

Collegiate sports enthusiasts know, when the name Mitch Barnhart is mentioned, you are talking about one of the most successful athletic directors in the past 30 years. What makes an AD successful is first getting the guy he wants at the coaching helm, and nothing says getting your guy like an April 1, 2009 press conference introducing to the world to the guy who would become college basketball’s perfect villain over the next decade.

But it isn’t just about the big-name hires. Barnhart went from an instantaneous success guaranteed hire in Calipari to a more long-term project in Mark Stoops.

“It’s like Novocaine, give it time it always works” - John Boone, Remember the Titans.

Despite many early woes, Barnhart gave Stoops time to put his beliefs, coaching staff and recruits in the system. Now UK football has an opportunity to truly fight for an SEC East title.

Barnhart has always had a niche for helping put UK sports a step ahead of a lot of other athletic departments. But the reason I call him money-making Mitch is because once you’re a coach and you find success at Kentucky, money won’t be the reason you leave Kentucky. If you’re changing the culture of the school, then the money will always be there to lure the top coaches and assistants, thus keeping the head of the snake intact for each sports team, especially basketball.

Mitch needs the program to be successful, so evolution has to be in the job description of each one of the coaches or their reign won’t last long.

We have seen this song and dance before

A lot of the fan base and journalists alike have championed Calipari as being a coach that will evolve with time, and to a certain degree, you have to give the man his accolades. He personally invented, at the college level, the draft combine at the beginning of the year that allows each NBA team to take a look at his NBA prospects first hand.

Of course, when the one-and-done rule was implemented, Calipari was head and shoulders above the rest of the country in preparing his teams for the one-and-done format. This gave Calipari, Memphis and UK an extra boost as far as recruiting is concerned.

Should we be surprised that Calipari ended up at Kentucky, considering Kentucky has an evolving AD and considering what has transpired there over the last 80 years even before Calipari?

No, we should not.

Should we be surprised that one of the most diverse thinking coaches went to the most diverse thinking school in college basketball history? When I say the most diverse college basketball program ever, that’s exactly what I mean.

No, we should not.

If you list the top 10 schools with the most national titles, only two schools have won multiple titles with more than two coaches, and one has more than the other, and that’s the Kentucky Wildcats.

Kentucky has won eight national titles with five different coaches. Kansas, Louisville, Villanova, and Duke have all won titles with two different coaches with UNC in second place with three winning at their respected schools.

My point is when looking at this landscape of the aforementioned universities, you have to think Kentucky’s future will always be bright as long as guys like Mitch Barnhart are helping run the show.

Even after let down years, Kentucky basketball seems to round out into form eventually. If you look at “blue bloods from the 60s, 70s, like UCLA, and Indiana, the culture may be there, but the titles over the last 40 years haven’t been.

Okay, so UCLA had the O’Bannon brothers in ‘94, but IU has been without a title since ‘87, with the great Bobby Knight. UCLA has 11 titles with two different coaches. IU has five titles with one coach.

The University of Kentucky once again, eight titles with five different coaches, has had success in Lexington from regular season to conference tournaments to NCAA, except for a few (here’s looking at you Billy), which brings me to my next point.

Our fans may not be as unreasonable as made out to be

Now fans can get unruly, obnoxious, and for lack of better terms unreasonable. But when we take a deeper dive into this maybe UK fans have every reason to put set lofty goals. Think about it, since 1930 Kentucky has had seven coaches all with winning records and eight, count them out, eight with national championships added to their resume at Kentucky.

So to a regular Kentucky fan, they literally have the next man-up mentality when something doesn’t happen right away. It’s in the DNA of a UK fan when you see that many different faces at the helm raising up the net at the top of the ladder.

How many programs can retire a guy like Adolph Rupp and tell Joe B. Hall to come on down and beat an undefeated Bob Knight-led IU team on its way to the Final Four?

Or get put on probation one year because of a Hall of Fame coach and get a young Rick Pitino in there the very next year to revitalize the program and help create probably the greatest UK team ever assembled in the ‘96 untouchables?

So from a spoiled fan standpoint, if something isn’t working, get those pieces out of there and put some others in, because this is UK. To a viewer, over the last 90 years, more coaches have had success at Kentucky than any other school, so I guess the water is fine down in Lexington.

Relax

Fans and media alike will always have a knee-jerk reaction to a bad season, especially a historically-bad one like Kentucky was this past season and rightfully so.

But this fan base is known to be an intelligent fan base. So I would advise our fans to look at this journey more as stocks rather than hanging on every year. Because when you look at it from a stock standpoint, one bad year here and there has never stopped the immediate direction of where this program is headed, because Kentucky basketball has always trended up.