Should Kentucky fire John Calipari after Oakland upsets him in the NCAA Tournament’s first round?

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Kentucky basketball’s latest NCAA Tournament humiliation is enormous, but it’s not even the worst the program has endured in the past three seasons. That lack of uniqueness is the most damning thing about it.
This one, as a No. 3 seed playing No. 14 Oakland in the first round on Thursday, may not even go down in history. It felt surprising, but it did not feel stunning. A worse version happened just two years ago. A loss to a No. 14 seed that made 15 of 31 3-pointers en route to an 80–76 final score? Bad, but at least it wasn’t a 6-point loss to a No. 15-seeded Saint Peter’s two years ago.
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Drawing conclusions on a coaching tenure from one NCAA tournament game would be silly. Drawing them even from two historic losses would be dicey. But Calipari’s body of work in Lexington is much bigger than those two games. It includes a national championship in 2012, when Calipari didn’t just assemble one of the best rosters in the country but got it to play well at the right time. His problem in his most recent seasons at Kentucky has been a consistent inability to do the latter, and at this point, we’ve seen enough to transcend knee-jerk reactions.
Calipari was one of the most celebrated hires ever when Kentucky nabbed him away from Memphis in 2009. He hasn’t failed, because no tenure with a national championship can be a failure. But he has disappointed, and more than that, he has disappointed in ways that continuously vindicate the vocal contingent of Kentucky fans who have wanted him fired over the past several years. Calipari is one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. He is also an underachiever, and his detractors are now as vindicated as any elite coach’s doubters could possibly be in real time.
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Assessing Calipari’s tenure to date requires some nuance. Most Kentucky fans I’ve encountered are happy to provide it. Nobody believes that any plumber off the street could deliver a national title, even at a program that has won them at a rate of about one a decade since the late 1940s. (In reality, they’ve tended to cluster together.) Kentucky is the bluest of blue-bloods, and three of Calipari’s five most recent predecessors after the legendary Adolph Rupp managed to win one national title apiece. But two of them fell flat, with the school quickly firing one and the other resigning before the university axed him. Even a school with huge brand power and resource advantages can’t autopilot its way to titles without a steady hand. Calipari’s title-winning 2012 Kentucky team, led by eventual Hall of Fame center Anthony Davis, did not just fall out of the sky.
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But even in making three additional Final Fours, Calipari has otherwise fallen short. This program believes it should be better than everybody else. Since Calipari’s arrival, Duke and Kansas have a matching one title, but North Carolina, Connecticut, and Villanova all have two. In a straightforward trophy count, the Wildcats are just a regular great team—not the powerhouse their fans would prefer and even, to a point, expect. And beyond that count, the context makes things much more painful.
Kentucky and Duke are the recruiting juggernauts in men’s college hoops. That trend never lets up, not even for a year. A bad Kentucky recruiting class of high schoolers ranks second in the country. A catastrophic one ranks sixth. Calipari has a couple of entire NBA teams’ worth of alums now playing in the NBA, and every year, another brigade of five-star kids descends on Lexington to play for him. That happened before friends of the program could directly pay players above the table, and it has happened since.
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Given that recruiting and the objective fact that most Kentucky coaches get a national title, Calipari sitting on one in 15 years is not particularly impressive on its own. One could become two any time. The randomness of March Madness is most of the fun, after all. And enough ink’s been spilled over the years on why Calipari hasn’t gotten himself a second ring. One idea seems true but hard to deal with in practice: National champions don’t tend to be full of freshmen and sophomores making brief stopovers before turning pro, as Kentucky usually is (and very much was this year, with a couple of seniors taking care of a rotation that was almost entirely underclassmen). That is correct, but what is Calipari really supposed to do about it? Stop signing five-stars who want to come to Kentucky? No sane coach in the history of college sports would attempt that.
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Another, more reasonable case against Calipari is that recruiting has changed since his arrival, and he hasn’t changed with it. High school recruiting is now only part of the deal, and while Calipari will always reign in that arena, he is not a dominant force in the transfer portal (the means by which teams acquire active college players away from other programs). Sure, the coach has gotten some crucial players from other schools, including veterans Tre Mitchell (from West Virginia and Calipari’s shared hometown of Pittsburgh, where they both lost on Thursday) and Antonio Reeves from Illinois State. 2022’s National Player of the Year was Oscar Tshiebwe, a power forward Calipari also got from West Virginia. But “recruiting the best high schoolers” and “having the best roster” are no longer synonymous, before one even gets to the matter of effectively deploying the players on the team.
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And that is where Calipari has fallen maddeningly short so often. Luck plays a role any time a team like Oakland beats a team like Kentucky, even one that looked a bit over-seeded as a No. 3. The Golden Grizzlies have made 35.6 percent of their 3-pointers this season, ranking 86th in Division I. Against Kentucky they made 48.4 percent. That would have led the country over a full season—ahead of, well, Kentucky, which led the nation by making 40.9 percent. Naturally, Kentucky produced a solid foundation of bricks in this game, going 9-for-28 from deep, just 32.1 percent.
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What is Kentucky supposed to do about that? The volatility of basketball revolves around the reality that sometimes the ball goes through the hoop for one team and does not for the other. That is the whole point. Calipari deserves a lot of credit for putting together a team that normally shoots the 3 at an elite level. But that has rarely been the case for him, and some ultra-athletic Kentucky teams have lost big games on bad shooting nights. This year’s team, as Calipari said both before and after the game, was built to contend in March.
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It shouldn’t be that simple, though. Oakland had a good shooting night and Kentucky had a bad one, but neither was extreme. The exact same thing was true in the Saint Peter’s loss in 2022: The underdogs made a bunch of shots (9-of-17 from 3-point range), and Kentucky didn’t (4-of-15). Both times, with a bunch of future white-collar workers going up against future professional basketball players, Calipari and his staff lacked an answer when shooting variance worked against them. Oakland is much smaller than Kentucky, but the Grizzlies pulled down 33 percent of their offensive rebound opportunities compared to 30 percent for Kentucky—a figure the Wildcats had beaten against top opponents North Carolina, Tennessee (twice), Gonzaga, and Auburn. Maybe it was nerves. On Thursday, UK lacked its typical poise, turning the ball over on a much higher-than-normal 16 percent of its possessions. (Its regular-season rate was 10.7 percent.)
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I’m not sure how any of this points toward Calipari doing his job at the level Kentucky demands. He remains a prodigious recruiter of the best high schoolers in the country, but talent acquisition is more varied than that now. He remains a coach capable of molding that talent into Southeastern Conference contenders who look solid entering the tournament. But Kentucky’s expectations have always been higher.
Calipari knows those expectations well. They are what the money is for, all $9 million a year he gets from the school. The same contract is why it would cost about $33 million to fire him. Whether the school should do that is a question of priorities and self-evaluation. On the one hand, Calipari might be the best recruiter in the history of college sports. On the other, even without him, there’s no way Kentucky would ever stop signing top-10 or probably even top-five recruiting classes, and it’s not like all of the No. 1 classes have materialized into exceptional results. Then again, Calipari has Kentucky in contention every year, and even in Lexington, that is not quite a birthright. The Wildcats know what flameouts look like, too, because they had one right before Calipari. The last guy missed the tournament in his second year and was out of the job.
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Calipari picked a tough business, and he has thrived in it over a 40-year coaching career. He signed up for a job in which success would be hard to define but in which he would at least operate within reasonable parameters. Would one national championship do it? That would be standard, but he would need two to be considered abnormally successful. Defining failure would be simpler: Never win the whole thing, and that wouldn’t be good enough. But what about the gray area? What would make Calipari both an effective Kentucky coach and an inevitable underachiever? That feels easier to answer. If one national title 12 years ago followed by losses to 15th and 14th seeds in three years does not qualify, then nothing ever could.

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