Righting the Kentucky basketball ship rests on the shoulders of John Calipari.
Just over a week ago, following a 76-58 win over Florida in Gainesville, it seemed like maybe this Kentucky basketball team was finding its stride.
After a miserable open to the season, the Wildcats had strung together three wins in a row to start Southeastern Conference play. Dontaie Allen was providing much-needed scoring and Keion Brooks had finally returned to the floor, making an immediate impact.
How quickly things change.
Rather than taking advantage of an opportunity for a quality win against Alabama on Tuesday, Kentucky regressed back to their December form. Poor shooting, lackluster defense, and 19 turnovers resulted in the worst home loss of the John Calipari era falling 85-65 to the Crimson Tide.
The hope was this game would be a one-off. The Crimson Tide are a talented, veteran-laden team, currently sitting atop the SEC standings. They also poured in 14 threes, on 46.7% shooting from distance.
However, then came Saturday at Auburn and despite leading for a good portion of the game the end result a 66-59 loss was one that has become all too common this season.
Kentucky now sits at 4-8 (3-2 in the SEC) on the season, those three straight wins a distant memory, replaced by a feeling that time may be running out on this team. The most frustrating part for those watching is that many times the recipe for success seems to be there, but Calipari remains reluctant to change his ways and accept what that may be.
It’s been discussed many times over that Cal’s player’s first mentality has seemed to shade more towards those players who come in highly touted, with NBA futures on the horizon. All the while he remains stubborn in his approach, less likely to stick with other rotation players who may provide the best chance to win games.
On top of questionable decision making during games, the postgame press conferences have been puzzling all season. Initially, it was a reluctance to give Dontaie Allen a chance, even as the team was struggling to score. Following a loss at Louisville on December 26, Kentucky’s 6th straight game scoring fewer than 65 points, Cal was asked about Allen not seeing the floor.
“There were two times I thought about putting him in. Once in the first half, which I wish I would have, because I would have been able to play him in the second half. If I don’t play a guy in the first half and it goes on, that, you know. I coached the game to win, that’s all I did.”
This quote wasn’t just nonsensical, it was an excuse. An excuse as to why certain players were allowed to continue playing through misses and mistakes, while others who may provide a better opportunity to win on any given night are not getting minutes.
When finally given his chance, Allen led a come from behind win at Mississippi State, pouring in 23 points and followed that performance up with 14 in a win against Vanderbilt. His ability to stretch the floor and make shots seemed to make life easier for everyone.
While Allen is now getting minutes, as should have been the case all season, when those minutes come can at times be perplexing. Take for instance Saturday afternoon.
After providing a spark in the first half, scoring eight points as the rest of the team was struggling to find any offense; Cal opened the second half with his starters. Allen found himself back on the bench for seven minutes, as the rest of the team continued to struggle to provide offensive production.
While the Allen situation has dominated the headlines for most of the season, there are numerous question marks surrounding how Cal is using (or not using) most every player on the roster. If it’s possible for this season to turn around, it has to start with John Calipari.
Similar questions to those surrounding Allen could also be asked regarding Jacob Toppin, the 6’9 transfer from Rhode Island. If there’s one player you could point to which provides maximum effort each time he’s on the floor, it would be Toppin. It may be far fetched to think you could rely on Toppin to give you 10 points per game, but his production shows up on the stat sheet in other ways this team desperately needs.
Toppin has recorded over 20 minutes just four times this season. In those four games, he’s averaged 7.8 points and 6 rebounds. He has also shown himself to be one of the few players on the team who can defend without fouling.
There’s no reason that Kentucky should have yet to experiment with inserting Toppin, or Allen into the starting lineup. There’s no reason that Lance Ware should not see the floor for an entire game (specifically as you are getting outscored by 10 points in the paint).
There’s no reason any player, be it Brandon Boston Jr. or otherwise should be locked into minutes if they are not producing. There is no reason lineups with only one scorer should ever be put on the floor.
When a team is struggling, they need to be aided by their coach more than ever. The problems are certainly not all on Calipari’s shoulders, but he bears the brunt of the blame and can do more than any other to help change things.
I will readily admit that for Kentucky to be as good as they can be this season, they need production from both Boston and Olivier Sarr. Those guys are talented and when they are going, this team is much harder to stop. But when they are not, sticking with them does nothing but hurt. You can’t force an issue to the point that it’s detrimental to the team’s success.
The flow of the game and the needs of the team should dictate playing time. Cal has often said that no one is promised anything at Kentucky; it doesn’t matter if you are a five-star talent or not. Playing time is earned. Promise me one thing Cal, those that earn it will get it. That sounds like a solid starting point for trying to right this ship and turn things around.