What went wrong for Kentucky this season? How did a program that lost only 14 games the previous three years lose 12 this season? How did a program that won 102 games the three previous years and made consecutive Final Four appearances lose in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris? How did John Calipari, who had seven straight seasons of 29 or more wins, lose control of this team?
“I think it was a little too much of fighting coaching,” guard Julius Mays, who transferred to Kentucky this season in hopes of playing for a national title, said after the Wildcats' season-ending loss Tuesday. “Sometimes I think guys think they know more than what the coach knows but that's part of being young. You come from being that guy and you basically did what you wanted on that team and you're asking to come into a system and be coached by a great coach, but it still takes guys longer to overcome thinking they know more than the coach knows.
Mays said the loss to Robert Morris was like what happened way too often all season.
“It was the same things that happened all year. No fight, no toughness. Soft, just playing scared, not thinking about the team, just thinking about ourselves,” Mays said. “It is the same thing that happened all year. You would like to change it, but it’s just maturity. I think these guys have more years of college so they can learn now to fight and how to be coached and learn how to be more tougher.”
Maybe they can. But if Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein, Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer — the top five non-seniors on UK’s roster other than injured Nerlens Noel — all return to UK as they indicated they would Tuesday, they better be prepared for a culture change daily. Calipari added Julius Randle to an already impressive recruiting haul Wednesday and will add six of the nation’s top 20 players in what is being call the all-time best recruiting class in college basketball.
Kentucky players had no fear of the bench — or practice competition — this year. Next season the five players who could come back may not produce a starter among them. After all, who could argue with a freshman starting lineup of guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, small forward James Young, power forward Julius Randle and either Dakari Johnson or Marcus Lee at center. Add Andrew Wiggins if he was to pick UK and the returning Cats will have to battle harder daily than they did at any time this year just to play.
Calipari was beating that drum not long after Tuesday’s loss.
“The best thing that’s going to happen to us next year is we’re going to have unbelievable competition at every spot. So there’s no one here that’s promised, ‘OK, I played 30 minutes a game.’ You may play five, but you will change,” Calipari said. “The stuff I had to accept this year, the program almost got hijacked. Never in my career have I surrendered in any way to any team, and I did at times this year – to try to save guys, to try to help guys – and it never works.
“So what we’re going to have is unbelievable competition. We may have three teams, so 15 guys that can play. Let’s go. It’s what we need, kind of like my first year when we had all those players. We’re going to be a little young, but with guys coming back we’ll still have some veteran guys.”
Some critics are wondering if the one-and-done philosophy Calipari has embraced finally has caught up with UK even though the Cats won the national title in 2012 and could have won it the previous two years as well.
“Who’s down on this program? The only good news is, because we have this group coming in, they’re not going to be No. 1 in the country, because they’ll say, ‘Well, maybe you can’t do it with young guys.’ And I come back to, we did it last year, won a national title with young players. But that’ll be out there,” Calipari said.
“So we have something to prove: You can do it with young players if you have some veterans sprinkled in who come with a great attitude and understand what they have to do. If there’s any doubters, have at it. You can doubt all you want. This program’s in great shape. Kids across the country still want to come here. It’s all good.”
Randle’s decision to pick UKover Kansas, Florida and Texas certainly seemed to validate what Calipari said after the NIT loss.
Remember back in November when Morehead coach Sean Woods, a former Wildcat, said he sensed the current Cats felt entitled and drew the wrath of UK fans. Calipari admitted Tuesday “maybe” Woods was right. Then he also explained a lot more about what went wrong this year.
“There was a combination of our skill set wasn’t where it needed to be, we weren’t real skilled and (we didn’t) work as hard and together as we needed to. Was it a combination of all? Was it a lack of leadership or guard play? People have said our guard play stunk. I don’t know if it stunk. I’ll have to go look back. All I know is, there were things that we did this year we will not do. We will correct, and we’ll be fine,” Calipari said.
“This program’s fine. The recruiting is in good shape. We’re right where we need to be. I’ll be out on the road tomorrow looking at juniors. We’re ahead in the junior class. We’re fine. And we will be a tough ball team next year. We will be a tough, hard-nosed, fighting team next year. I promise you we will be because I can’t sit through that. I can’t take it.”