LEXINGTON, Ky. — On April 4, 2015, John Calipari was the king of faculty basketball. He’d introduced Kentucky to the Final Four for the fourth time in 5 years, this time with an unprecedented 38-0 file and a shot at not solely his second nationwide championship but in addition one of many biggest seasons of all time.
On April 5, 2015 in Indianapolis, his Wildcats led Wisconsin by 4 factors with 5 minutes to go, seemingly destined for a title-game collision with Duke and nemesis Mike Krzyzewski. That is, till Calipari successfully deflated the basketball, ordering a staff with seven eventual NBA draft picks to play stall ball. “I don’t like this. It ended up in a bad shot last time,” legendary broadcaster Bill Raftery informed the tv viewers, groaning as he watched plodding possessions that principally led to hurried, off-balance heaves. Calipari buried his face in his fingers because the dream season disintegrated.
The subsequent day, news broke that Calipari was voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, so he stayed in Indianapolis to simply accept awkward congratulations. He sat earlier than reporters, nonetheless shell-shocked from the evening earlier than, fielding alternating questions on his profession’s most devastating loss and most prestigious honor. It was as if he’d slipped and fallen off Kilimanjaro simply shy of the summit, solely to one way or the other get up atop Everest. “I feel phony,” he mentioned that day.
Kentucky and its coach have by no means fairly been the identical since.
More than eight years later, Calipari and the Wildcats haven’t been again to a Final Four. They’ve gained one NCAA Tournament recreation within the final three years. The mountaintop has light from view, and the query now’s whether or not a 64-year-old Calipari can climb once more or if he’ll proceed the descent in his fifteenth season in Lexington. The slide was sufficiently subtle at first — Kentucky was one shot away from returning to the Final Four in 2017 and 2019, and gained the Southeastern Conference by three video games in 2020 earlier than COVID-19 canceled the postseason — however the decline started in these waning moments towards Wisconsin.
“I really believe that game broke him,” mentioned one former help employees member, who, together with 4 others, requested anonymity to guard their relationship with Calipari.
“That year took a lot out of him,” mentioned one other former staffer. “It was such a unique opportunity to do something that had never been done, and to lose it all in the national semifinals … The next year, the vibes were entirely different.”
The Athletic spoke to former Kentucky assistant coaches and help staffers, in addition to basketball brokers and NBA front-office personnel, about why the Wildcats have fallen and whether or not Calipari can recapture the magic. Several themes emerged:
• Calipari’s endurance steadily shrank in recent times, which led to a shorter fuse with gamers (and a few employees) and a much less detailed strategy to preparation. “He used to be a really good teacher,” a 3rd former staffer mentioned, “but then he would just speed through practice.”
• He grew to become much less progressive. Gripping the wheel too tightly in that 2015 Final Four loss, extremely, didn’t persuade him to unleash all that expertise. Instead, he clamped down more durable. “We used to put in real offense, run real stuff,” the second former staffer mentioned. Calipari famously adopted and popularized the dribble-drive movement offense, which empowered his five-star guards to make performs. But in recent times? “He stopped letting his guys go,” the staffer mentioned.
• As Calipari dug-in stylistically, even publicly scoffing on the 3-point revolution that has overtaken basketball at each stage, he additionally turned cantankerous, looking for out slights and holding grudges. He picked fights with Kentucky’s athletic director, with the largest radio character within the state, and with the Wildcats’ wildly widespread soccer coach — and he obsessed over these feuds. “He’s at his best when his back is against the wall or he has somebody to prove wrong,” mentioned a fourth former staffer, “but there’s a delicate balance there, and he started to lose focus.”
Most prominently, those that spoke to The Athletic cite important turnover on Calipari’s employees as an ailment that has plagued this system. Calipari has signed an unmatched 58 five-star recruits, had 47 NBA draft picks, together with 35 first-rounders, 23 lottery picks and had three gamers taken No. 1 general since his arrival in Lexington in 2009. But key personnel losses shattered the help system that channeled the coach’s greatest traits and challenged his worst concepts.
Over the previous three years, particularly, that allowed a crack within the basis to grow to be a chasm.
NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns as soon as known as Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne “the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.” Former lottery choose Willie Cauley-Stein mentioned: “Kenny is the backbone. He keeps that sh– tight.” Lakers All-Star Anthony Davis predicted in the summertime of 2019 that the Wildcats would “definitely take a hit if (Payne) leaves.” After almost a decade of recruiting, growing and bonding with gamers, Payne left Lexington in August 2020 for an assistant teaching job with the New York Knicks; he’s now head coach of rival Louisville.
DeWayne Peevy, a longtime Calipari consigliere who’d risen to deputy athletic director, left that very same month to grow to be athletic director at DePaul. Peevy’s job, partly, was to handle a gentle stream of Calipari’s huge concepts. He listened, debated, filtered, vetted and, when needed, vetoed. Whenever concepts truly received by way of to AD Mitch Barnhart, Peevy would joke, “You don’t realize the 78 things I got rid of before I came with these two.” With that buffer in place, Calipari was free to dream wildly and converse freely. “I never focused on telling him no,” Peevy mentioned in 2020. “I really just focused on getting him to understand that his vision had to match the department’s vision. I think he respected that. There was a trust level there.”
During that 38-1 season in 2015, the New York Times profiled then-assistant John Robic, whom the headline declared was “happy to sweat the small stuff for Kentucky.” Robic, who’d additionally been a trusted Calipari adviser at Massachusetts and Memphis, was the brains behind pregame preparations. His movie research was exhaustive, his scouting experiences thorough and his recreation plans clear-eyed. “He’s Cal’s right-hand man,” former No. 1 choose John Wall informed the Times. “Robes does the other things – allows Cal to be as efficient as he wants.” Calipari’s mentor, Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, mentioned then that Robic “basically allows John to do his job.”
A 12 months later, Calipari moved Robic into an off-court function, and in April 2021, off the basketball employees. Neither Robic nor Calipari, who each declined to remark for this story, have publicly mentioned what led to their falling out.
“That is a huge one,” mentioned the second former staffer. “Robic was the scout. He was very detailed, just really knew his stuff. He was one of those guys Cal leaned on in a lot of ways, for a lot of things, that I think maybe after 30 years together, you just kind of take for granted – and when they’re gone, there’s a massive void there.”
The 2016-17 staff, led by De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, was “the last fun team to watch at Kentucky,” mentioned the third former staffer. After that season, Calipari “became so tight with the reins. We got away from the dribble-drive and he started trying to over-coach. He tried to under-teach and over-coach, and that’s a bad combination.”
Calipari’s notorious Two Circle play, typically used as a stall tactic, “became our go-to offense,” the second former staffer mentioned. Some European groups run variations of a Circle offense, however with tempo and artistic wrinkles. Calipari’s model? It was a “meat grinder,” mentioned the third former staffer. “We were running good offense against Wisconsin, went to Two Circle and lost it.”
Last season, a staff that includes three former five-star recruits, a number of coveted transfers and reigning nationwide participant of the 12 months Oscar Tshiebwe received outclassed by Tom Izzo and Michigan State, Mark Few and Gonzaga, Mick Cronin and UCLA and even SEC newcomer Dennis Gates and Missouri earlier than the brand new 12 months. At that point, The Athletic spoke to a number of opposing coaches about what appeared to be the issue.
“I’m not sure what Cal wants. It’s like there’s an identity crisis,” mentioned one.
“Their offense is archaic,” mentioned one other. “It’s gotta be the same sh– he was running with the New Jersey Nets.”
In addition to Robic, Payne and Peevy, 4 extra assistants and several other different help staffers have left within the final three years. Joel Justus, who helped UK land Adebayo and develop Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, went to Arizona State, then N.C. State. Tony Barbee, who performed for Calipari at UMass, labored for him at three colleges and was the brains behind the Wildcats’ protection, took the head-coaching job at Central Michigan. Jai Lucas, who is taken into account one of many nation’s high younger coaches, bolted for Duke after two years in Lexington. KT Turner took the UT Arlington head-coaching job after one season.
Additionally, longtime media relations director and Calipari confidante Eric Lindsey took a PR job exterior of sports activities through the 2021-22 season. Longtime assistant video coordinator Andrew Ortelli, who helped fill the scouting void when Robic exited, took a promotion at Temple this summer time. TJ Beisner, who organized Kentucky’s identify, picture and likeness efforts and was one other trusted sounding board for Calipari, took an identical job at North Carolina final month.
“He doesn’t have anyone around him who understands how he thinks now,” mentioned a fifth former staffer. “He’s a genius. He really is. But like any kind of creative person, you have to know how to channel it, and I just don’t think he has that anymore.”
In a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile of Bob Knight headlined “The Rabbit Hunter,” author Frank Deford described how the notorious Indiana coach struggled to apply what he preached to his gamers: Don’t go chasing rabbits or the elephants will kill you. Deford wrote: But the coach doesn’t take heed to himself. He’s at all times chasing after the incidental.
In latest years, a chilly struggle along with his boss, Barnhart, has grow to be one among Calipari’s rabbits. The bombastic coach and pragmatic AD differ dramatically in character and disagree about what constitutes ample college help for the winningest program in faculty basketball historical past. Their relationship has grow to be strained since Peevy left, and it got here to a boiling level in the summertime of 2022, when Calipari publicly demanded a brand new apply facility — which Barnhart deems pointless — and inadvertently picked a battle with soccer coach Mark Stoops by calling Kentucky “a basketball school.”
A surreal news convention adopted, during which Stoops and Barnhart successfully informed Calipari to zip it. To nobody’s shock, he didn’t take that nicely. Recently, Calipari has adopted a catch phrase repeated typically to the media: “Administrations win championships.” It’s at all times delivered within the context of explaining that SEC basketball is healthier now as a result of extra colleges are dedicated to the game the best way Kentucky at all times has been.
“DeWayne worked as a go-between that allowed Cal and Mitch to have the type of relationship they probably wanted from the very start: Look, we’re not the same people, not similar personalities, but we need each other,” mentioned the fourth former staffer. “They didn’t need to deal with each other every day because he had an intermediary in DeWayne. But there was never any thought to what happens when DeWayne leaves.”
Calipari thrives when he’s left alone to recruit expertise, mould star-studded rosters into unselfish groups and promote the model like a cocksure carnival barker. But he wants trappers round him to maintain the rabbits out of sight. With fewer of these within the constructing, Calipari appears to have taken his eyes off the prize. In addition to his rift with Barnhart, he spent the higher a part of two years not-so-subtly beefing with radio host Matt Jones, obsessing over what he believed was overly harsh criticism.
“There’s been times the team wasn’t performing well and he was focused on saying some sh– or putting out something to get back at Matt Jones,” mentioned the fourth former staffer.
Chasing these rabbits has taken a toll.
Last season, he steadily referenced how drained he was. Pregame news conferences, the place he as soon as delivered daring proclamations, not-so-humble brags or not-so-subtle jabs, grew to become virtually nonexistent. He zipped by way of postgame news conferences. He started hand-picking who received to ask him a query after video games — and tried to keep away from follow-up questions.
After a house loss to Vanderbilt on March 1, Calipari spoke for simply 5 minutes on his postgame radio present, the place a whole lot of followers waited in Rupp Arena as he joined the host courtside. He made an abrupt exit, explaining, “As you can tell, I am beat down right now. I’m tired. This has been a tough run.” Assistant coach Orlando Antigua took over the present.
“He’s just worn out,” mentioned the second former staffer. “He ain’t 54 anymore. He’s 64.”
This summer time, Calipari reunited with Chuck Martin, who was with him at Memphis when the Tigers made three straight Elite Eights and performed for a nationwide title. He introduced in John Welch, an outdated buddy with 20 years of NBA teaching expertise and a revered participant improvement guru. Calipari additionally employed a video coordinator with NBA expertise who additionally labored at San Diego State.
Calipari mentioned Martin is “going to be tremendous for us” and has “already had an impact on our recruiting.” Kentucky simply landed its first five-star recruit within the 2024 class. Welch “helped me put in the dribble-drive with Vance Walberg when I was at Memphis,” mentioned Calipari, who wish to get again to these roots this season with a guard-heavy roster. “He’s a guy that loves to teach.”
Martin and Welch are “more like Cal’s previous staffs,” mentioned the fifth former staffer. “They’re more, ‘We’re here to win games. What do you need from us, Coach?’”
Calipari’s first want is at all times going to be expertise. He has that this season, after signing an old-school recruiting class that ranks No. 1 nationally, together with five-stars Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham. He went towards his nature the final two years, making an attempt to win with transfer-heavy rosters and veteran groups, however now Calipari has leaned again into the youth motion that made him well-known. This roster options eight freshmen and solely two seniors.
“If you ask me talent or experience, I’m taking talent, and the talent usually figures it out,” Calipari mentioned at media day final week. “Look, I’m not changing. I’m going to recruit the best freshman player that I can get. Now, you could say, ‘It’s not going to work anymore!’ Well, we’ll see.”
Everything we’ve seen from these Wildcats to this point, from a four-game exhibition romp in Canada to a rollicking sequence of preseason highlights, suggests Calipari goes to play a extra trendy model of basketball. That might be purely out of necessity, as not one of the Wildcats’ three 7-footers has been obtainable, however the coach seems to be getting comfy enjoying with tempo and house, five-out and firing away from deep.
The faculty basketball world stays skeptical. Kentucky has its lowest preseason rating ever below Calipari – sixteenth – and is picked to complete fourth within the SEC.
Still, perhaps Calipari, at this late stage, can lead a revival.
Just final summer time, he ranted to this system’s native tv accomplice about how vital it was to make Big Blue Madness, the well-known preseason basketball extravaganza and UK’s premier recruiting occasion of the 12 months, nice once more. Once a must-see spectacle, Madness had grow to be stale. “You can say, ‘It’s not that big a deal.’ It could (impress) one player and that one player can help you win a national title,” Calipari informed WLEX-TV. “That John Wall stuff and that Madness got us Anthony Davis. You gotta be talking about Madness for a month or we didn’t do our job. It’s unacceptable.”
So what did Calipari and Kentucky ship for Madness in 2023? The least-exciting occasion to this point. There was no viral dance like Wall’s in 2009, no Drake within the layup line like 2014 — or Drake on the video board introducing Calipari in 2015, or Drake sporting a “Kentucky Dad” hoodie on the bench in 2017 — no Michael Buffer like 2016 and even Bruce Buffer like 2019. There had been no braggadocious strains like Calipari’s oft-repeated, “We do more than move the needle; we are the needle” from 2011.
This 12 months, former star DeMarcus Cousins launched Calipari — “The GOAT. Y’all better put some respect on his name” — and an more and more gray-headed man ambled onto the stage, not in one among his signature Italian fits, however in a UK pullover and denims. Calipari addressed the group for lower than a minute. The solely shorter Madness look by him was in 2014, alongside Drake, when he merely mentioned, “Enough talking, let’s ball,” and actually dropped the microphone.
This was not that. “Let’s watch these guys play and enjoy it,” Calipari mentioned, with minimal enthusiasm, “and let’s get on with this.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; pictures: Dylan Buell, Andy Lyons, Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)
Source web site: theathletic.com