With more pressure on him than ever in Kentucky, John Calipari is forced to find a way out and up

John Calipari had his share of talented teams that doubled as work-as-you-go projects throughout the season. In a few years he has successfully mastered the difficult, self-directed task of figuring out how to get a roster that lacks familiarity to play at the highest level in college basketball.

But only once before has a Calipari-coached Kentucky team lost at least two of their first five games. It was the 2019-20 roster, historically terrible, finishing 9-16 in a pandemic-hit season, that shook Kentucky fans to the core.

Aside from ’19-20, the only other time Calipari’s Cats lost at least two games in November, like this team has now, was 2012-13. These Wildcats did not make the NCAA tournament after Nerlens Noel was injured in the season-ending SEC game. UK famously lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

This team will not be like those teams. While it might be conceivable in a parallel universe, in the one we know and love, this Kentucky team has no chance of going under .500 and not winning 10 games. Furthermore, it would be a surprise if this team didn’t finish in the top-15 in March. With the reigning National Player of the Year (Oscar Tshiebwe), veterans galore, future NBA talent and several dependable 3-point shooters, Calipari has everything he could wish for in a Final Four type roster.

So why doesn’t it look like Kentucky has that luxury available? This year marked the 11th time that Calipari’s Britain were included in the AP poll’s top five teams last season. Two weeks later we don’t see that. Kentucky is 3-2, its three wins coming at home against Howard, Duquesne and South Carolina State – teams that are 6-11 combined. The two losses came with 25 points combined against Michigan State (86-77 in overtime) and No. 2 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs sauntered to an 88-72 win over the fourth-placed Wildcats Sunday night, the first game in a six-year streak between the two.

When the polls are updated Monday afternoon, Kentucky will drop out of the top 10. If they are to return to the top tier of the rankings, the Kentucky team that traveled to Spokane, Washington will never need to be seen again. Trainer included. It’s hard to imagine how a group with Tshiebwe (even if his condition isn’t quite 100%) could be surpassed 44-24 in the paint. Gonzaga did that. It’s hard to imagine how Kentucky could trick Gonzaga into 18 turnovers and still lose by 16, but it happened. Tshiebwe had 20 points and 15 rebounds, a typical night at the office, and essentially evened out Drew Timme’s 22-and-7 performance. But just as Kentucky isn’t just Tshiebwe, Gonzaga isn’t just Timme: Mark Few’s team took 24 points from Rasir Bolton and another 20 from Julian Strawther.

The Wildcats have not made the Final Four since 2015. Kentucky fans — passionate as they are about collegiate athletics — gave Calipari a pass for a good four years after the 38-1 team fell two wins short of immortality. But patience has waned. As a college coach, Calipari has never been under more pressure than this season, at least on the outside. That’s not to say he’s in the hot seat because he’s not, but by failing to draw 1-1 against Michigan State and Gonzaga, he’s fueled a segment of the fan base that wants the basketball of Kentucky is as dominant and dependable as Alabama football. (Logic be damned.)

I believe Calipari and Kentucky will do the right thing and have a brilliant season ahead. I chose Great Britain to win the national title. But I haven’t seen a title-winning team in those uniforms. It’s Caliparis’ job to get that out of this team and a lot of people have lost faith in his ability to do that.

For most of Calipari’s tenure, the British fanbase has pushed back the cynicism of others in the sport that their coach was overrated. It feels like that line of defense is now beginning to weaken. Calipari was often at his best when he was being questioned or cornered. Thanks to a shaky 3-2 start, we’ll soon find out just how good Kentucky wants to be and how fueled Calipari is to destroy the stink of the program of the last two years.

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