OPINION: Kentucky Fan’s Sentiment Shared by Many But It Was the Wrong Approach
As this college basketball season drags on, I'm concerned I'll end up damaging my scalp. It seems that could happen if I keep scratching my head over what I'm seeing from the Kentucky Wildcats.
THE KENTUCKY WILDCATS' SEASON BEGAN WITH PROMISE
With a pre-season ranking of No. 4--a ranking I believe was spot on--UK was expected to be a national title contender and win the Southeastern Conference. The 2021-2022 National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe was returning. So were multiple other upperclassmen who started or contributed valuable minutes during last season's campaign. Sure it ended ignominiously in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when 2-seed Kentucky lost to 15-seed St. Peter's. But they got that high seed thanks to, among others, huge wins last year over Tennessee, Alabama, Kansas, and North Carolina--the latter two of which played for the national championship won by Kansas.
It was a really good year. And I was defending Coach John Calipari even after that debacle because I knew who was coming back this year--a team that LOOKED like a contender. In 2018, Virginia became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed. The next year, they cut down the nets. I had every reason to think AT LEAST a Final Four appearance was not an outrageous goal.
KENTUCKY'S LOSSES HAVE STARTED TO MOUNT
But then this season's losses--four of which have come by double digits and three of which were blowouts--have continued to mount. And then it happened.
Into Rupp Arena walked 7-8 South Carolina, a team that had only ever won in the iconic venue TWICE in its history. The last time was in 2009. The Gamecocks got out to an early 13-2 lead, led by as many as 15 points, and then sealed the deal with a 71-68 victory over the Wildcats. Even with Jacob Toppin and Cason Wallace dealing with injury issues, a mildly short-handed Kentucky team still should have beaten a conference cellar-dweller.
Back in the day, when Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie were coaching, I would hear choruses of boos when UK lost home games. On Tuesday night, as soon as I knew Kentucky was taking its sixth loss, I turned it off. So I don't know if there were boos.
THE UNTHINKABLE FROM A FAN IN RUPP ARENA
There was, however, this:
I've been watching UK basketball for a lot of years, and I've never seen anyone go after a Kentucky coach like that IN THE STANDS. When I saw he'd been ejected, my first thought was that he was due a refund. He'd gotten the sign into the arena, after all, and surely officials knew what he must have been planning. But then I learned he'd been asked to put the sign away, refused, and chose to leave.
While fans complained about the sign, there are others who were in attendance who may agree with the Man With the Sign. But sentiments like those are probably best saved for social media where you will find no end of complaints about the current UK season.
'PLEASE GO TO TEXAS' AND WHAT THAT MEANS
Before I go on, maybe the sign needs some explanation. The Texas head coaching job is open. It's a good job, and the University of Texas has bottomless pits of money. No, it doesn't have the hoops name that Kentucky has, but the Texas athletic department is well-funded and has been known to go for broke to get the coaches they want.
And Calipari's name has been suggested on sports websites as a possible replacement for interim head coach Rodney Terry who, by the way, is doing a great job on the fly and should merit strong consideration for the position himself.
But UK fans are wildly unhappy with how this season has been going, and a home loss to a team with a losing record (before the game) won't help put out those fires.
JOHN CALIPARI -- A GOOD MAN STRUGGLING TO FIGURE IT OUT
He's a good man and he cares about his team. That's obvious. But he was given a pricey lifetime contract that keeps him in Kentucky until HE wants to go. And the severely diminishing returns on the court just don't merit what he's making. Since he signed it, there hasn't been a single NCAA Tournament win. Granted, COVID canceled the 2020 tournament--one in which the Cats were expected to do very well. But the 9-16 season happened next, followed by last season's first-round ouster.
One more thing, while I don't think we'll ever see another sign like that at a Kentucky home game, I can't help but wonder if we'll see more empty seats like the ones we see in that photo. That's a takeaway that's gone largely ignored.
CAN he get this thing figured out? I hope so, but who really knows except Calipari? He still has time--it's January, of course--but to paraphrase the legendary and supremely quotable Yogi Berra, "It's getting late early around here."
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