Even with fan frustration building, here’s why it’s too early to give up on UK basketball

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The latter third of John Calipari’s 15-season run as Kentucky men’s basketball coach keeps making the wrong kind of history.

UK’s 89-85 loss to Gonzaga at Rupp Arena on Saturday marked the third consecutive home loss for the 2023-24 Wildcats. Since Rupp Arena opened in 1976-77, no Kentucky team had lost three straight games in the venue.

With UK standing 16-7 with eight games left in its regular season, it seems all but certain that Calipari is headed toward his sixth double-digit loss campaign as Kentucky’s coach. That will break a tie with Tubby Smith and be the most seasons of 10 losses or more by anyone who has coached men’s hoops at UK.

Having lost the all-time wins lead to Kansas during the 2021-22 season, Kentucky got it back last offseason when the NCAA ordered the Jayhawks program to vacate 15 wins for use of an ineligible player during the 2017-18 season.

Down 10 wins to KU at the conclusion of the 2022-23 season, UK was up five entering this year, 2,375-2,370, in the official all-time victories standings.

Well, don’t look now, but Kansas (19-5) has already gained three games in the all-time wins chase and seems likely to pass Kentucky again by the end of this season.

Barring a dramatic turnaround, it seems UK — 6-4 in the SEC and behind four other teams that have fewer league losses in the standings — will fail to win the SEC regular-season championship for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. For a program that has won outright or shared 49 such titles, it is an unusually barren stretch.

As a Kentucky backer, one does not have to be part of the “negative Nellies attacking” — to use Calipari’s words on his postgame radio show following the Gonzaga loss to describe critics — to be concerned about the competitive arc of the Wildcats program.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari calls to his players during the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Rupp Arena in Lexington Saturday, February 10, 2024.
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari calls to his players during the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Rupp Arena in Lexington Saturday, February 10, 2024.

Yet, even while acknowledging that the Kentucky defensive woes that continue to sabotage the Wildcats show no sign of improving and that UK’s difficulties in executing offensively under game-deciding pressure are a growing concern, it is far too soon to pack it in on the 2023-24 Cats.

The reasons why can be found in Calipari-era UK basketball history. More than once during the one-and-done period of Kentucky hoops, the Wildcats have pulled off an emphatic “late-season save”:

2010-11: UK’s season was being undermined by the Wildcats’ inability to win close games on the road. In SEC play, the Cats lost away games by seven, two, two, two, four and one point(s). After the final one of those SEC road defeats, at Arkansas, UK stood 19-8 on the season, 6-7 in league contests.

Yet in the final week of the regular season, Kentucky gutted out close home wins over Florida and Vanderbilt, then broke through on the road with a victory at Tennessee. That late success gave a talented team confidence and propelled the Wildcats to an SEC Tournament title and an unexpected run to the NCAA Tournament Final Four.

2013-14: With a team heavily reliant on a ballyhooed freshman class, Kentucky closed out an uneven regular season by losing three of its final four games, including a 19-point defeat at SEC regular-season champion Florida on the final day. At that point, UK stood 22-9, 12-6 in the Southeastern Conference.

Yet after struggling all season, Kentucky “figured things out” in postseason play, losing by one in the SEC Tournament finals to the same Florida team that had routed the Wildcats a week earlier and then riding Aaron Harrison’s clutch shot-making on a completely unexpected run to the NCAA Tournament title game.

Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds lifted Kentucky to a 74-73 victory over Wisconsin in the 2014 NCAA Final Four at Arlington, Texas. It was the third straight game in which Harrison hit a shot in the final seconds to clinch victory for UK.
Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds lifted Kentucky to a 74-73 victory over Wisconsin in the 2014 NCAA Final Four at Arlington, Texas. It was the third straight game in which Harrison hit a shot in the final seconds to clinch victory for UK.

2017-18: After Kentucky lost four straight games in February, the Wildcats stood 17-9 overall, 7-7 in the SEC.

However, UK closed with a rush, winning nine of its final 11 games and taking the SEC Tournament title and reaching the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) was named 2018 SEC Tournament MVP after averaging 21 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists in three tourney games while leading the Wildcats to the championship.
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) was named 2018 SEC Tournament MVP after averaging 21 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists in three tourney games while leading the Wildcats to the championship.

That past Kentucky teams have managed to “put things together late” is no guarantee that the current Wildcats will do so, of course.

For one, the SEC of 2023-24 is deeper and stronger than the league Kentucky was playing against in Calipari’s first decade as UK’s head coach.

The primary flaw of the current Wildcats, their defensive haplessness, might be beyond repair. Out of 351 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams, UK stands 327th in scoring defense, surrendering 78.8 points a game. The Wildcats are a pedestrian 124th in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Pomeroy ratings.

Still, if UK’s history of end-of-season turnarounds under Calipari in the prior decade does not promise anything for this year, it is a reminder of this reality:

Even allowing for the justified levels of fan frustration presently percolating in the Big Blue Nation, there is still far too much basketball yet to be played to justify fully writing off the current Cats.

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