Is a tactical recruiting change enough to save John Calipari at Kentucky?

John Calipari's seat has never been hotter across his 15 years at Kentucky. While he's mulling philosophical changes, that shouldn't be enough for him to remain in charge of the blue blood program.
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

All of a sudden, college basketball got old. John Calipari wasn’t just the face of the one-and-done era in the sport, but he dominated it so much that even Coach K at Duke was forced to adapt to survive. Well, now it’s Coach Cal who needs to change with the times after a 1-4 record in his last five NCAA Tournament games. 

After Oakland stunned Kentucky in Round 1, Calipari was asked about his team-building philosophy and said, “I’ll look at other ways that we can do stuff, but you know, there’s – this thing here, it’s a different animal. We’ve been able to help so many kids and win so many games and Final Fours, national titles, and all this stuff, win league championships with young guys.”

College athletes are no longer true amateurs, with the NIL rules, it pays to stay in school and such, many athletes are milking every second of their eligibility. For Kentucky, that means the Wildcats are the less experienced team in almost every matchup, and that discrepancy shows up in March. 

“It changed on us. All of a sudden it’s gotten really old,” a dejected Calipari posed to reporters, “So, we’re playing teams that our average age is 19, their average age is 24 and 25. So do I change because of that? Maybe add a couple of older guys to supplement.”

This year, after three straight down seasons for Kentucky, Cal went back to his roots. He loaded up with the No. 1 freshman recruiting class in the country with D.J. Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Justin Edwards, Rob Dillingham, and Reed Sheppard, only to lose to 24-year-old Jack Golhke and Oakland on Thursday in the Round of 64. 

Sheppard and Dillingham emerged as the cream of that particular crop, and two of the leaders on Kentucky’s roster which features eight freshmen and three sophomores. When the brights shined lightly in Pittsburgh, Calipari’s hometown, Sheppard finished with three points on 1-5 shooting and Dillingham went 2-9 with 10 points. 

Yet, both will likely ride their successful freshman seasons into a big payday as an NBA lottery pick this summer. Something that Calipari will certainly flaunt as if it’s Kentucky’s 18th Final Four appearance. 

The couple of older guys that Kentucky did lean on, Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell, combined for 41 of the team’s 76 points. While Mitchell was banged up throughout the season, Reeves played like an All-American, the steadying force on a chaotic team. 

This season was the last stand for the one-and-done era, and if Kentucky fans had their way, the last stand for Calipari too. Likely, Cal will be back, but his philosophy can’t return to Lexington. Once again, the roster will turn over with Sheppard and Dillingham leaving for the NBA, but Calipari finally needs to value continuity and prioritize the transfer portal. 

The bad news is that the Kentucky program is broken, the worse news is that it’ll take time for a full-scale philosophical shift. Kentucky’s incoming recruiting class is No. 2 in the country, only behind Duke, and features a five-star center, Jayden Quaintance, and five four-stars, who will all expect playing time next season. 

Cal will usher part of that group into the NBA 15 months from now with very few meaningful wins to show for it. Because Cal’s No. 1 priority is clear, and it’s not winning championships. While he can say that he’s considering changes, in that same postgame press conference he revealed the same stubbornness that should convince Kentucky’s administration to move in a new direction with new leadership, instead of trusting Cal to do that himself. 

“I’ve done this with young teams my whole career, and it’s going to be hard for me to change that because we’ve helped so many people young people and their families that I don’t see myself just saying, ‘OK we’re not going to recruit freshman,” Calipari said. 

While delivering young athletes to the professional promised land is a valiant cause, it’s not part of Calipari’s job description, winning championships is, and at some point across his 15 years in Lexington, he managed to forget that.

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