LEXINGTON — John Calipari seems to be getting his wish.
“Please steer your disappointment and anger toward me,” Calipari posted to his social media accounts Saturday, two days after his team’s shocking NCAA Tournament first-round loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s. “These kids did this all for the BBN and I wish I could have dragged them over the finish line.”
Even before Calipari’s posts to Facebook and Twitter, the vast majority of fan complaints online had been lobbed in the Hall of Fame coach’s direction.
The complaints were not new, but a dominant two-month stretch in the middle of the season had marked the full return of the uber-confident version of Calipari fans have dubbed “Swaggy Cal.” News conferences following blowout wins turned into justifications of his coaching credentials. A veteran roster built around transfers was supposedly proof Calipari had not been left behind by a sport becoming ever more reliant on experience in March.
Kentucky basketball: After loss to Saint Peter’s, is John Calipari’s UK legacy in danger?
Is the offensive system broken after all? Can Calipari coach a team without the number of elite future NBA pros his early Kentucky teams had? Will name, image and likeness reform be the path to greater roster continuity it was hyped as?
“I wish I had an answer or two,” Calipari said after the loss. “I just do.”
John Calipari’s contract details
There has been no shortage of calls from angry fans for Kentucky to make a coaching change since the Saint Peter’s loss, but to be clear, Calipari is in no danger of being fired.
While it is true the last Kentucky coach to miss the NCAA Tournament and lose a first-round game in a two-year period was fired, Billy Gillispie also had not previously coached Kentucky to four Final Fours, two national championship games and one title. More importantly, per the terms of Calipari’s so-called lifetime contract, Kentucky would owe him more than $46 million if it fired him without cause.
The only way Calipari is not Kentucky’s coach next season is if he voluntarily walks away from that contract. The idea of the Hall of Famer admitting defeat in that way seems even less likely than Saint Peter’s upset was Thursday morning, barring an unexpected job opening at a school with deep pockets and a motivation to make a headline-grabbing splash.
UK basketball roster: Which Wildcats will return, who will leave after shocking loss to Saint Peter’s?
Calipari was linked to the UCLA and Texas jobs in recent years, so it is not impossible he would leave Kentucky for another college job, but it no longer seems likely an NBA team would be interested in his services. He is still two years away from the clause in his contract that would allow him to transition into a cushy ambassadorial role for the university kicking in.
“My focus is on these kids and recruiting so we continue being a program that has a chance to do something special every year,” Calipari tweeted Saturday. “The culture we’ve built in this program expects that and demands it. I love and appreciate our fans.”
How Shaedon Sharpe, Oscar Tshiebwe decisions will affect John Calipari
It may be impossible for Calipari to bring back all the disgruntled fans before the start of next season, but what happens next this offseason will say much about his approval rating.
Additions to the roster, either through the transfer portal or reclassifying high school prospects, may move the needle some, but the return of National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe and much-hyped freshman guard Shaedon Sharpe could be essential steps to salvaging any positivity this summer.
Unfortunately for Calipari, the chance of either decision working out in his favor looks at best a tossup at the moment.
After the Saint Peter’s loss, Tshiebwe said he was uncertain about his next step. He planned to talk with Calipari and his family about whether to start a professional career or return to Kentucky.
Tshiebwe is projected as a second-round pick in the 2022 NBA draft if he leaves school, but it is possible he could climb into the back of the first round. Even if he does not, there is a strong argument that a return to Kentucky faces more risk than possible reward in terms of his draft stock.
When Tshiebwe announced in February the visa issues preventing him from engaging in NIL deals had been resolved, optimism around the program about a possible return soared. However, since that announcement, the expected wave of NIL deals has yet to materialize. If there is any lingering concern about how those endorsements would affect Tshiebwe’s student visa status, starting a professional career becomes even more attractive.
The more level-headed portions of the fan base could excuse a Tshiebwe departure after his historic season. It will be difficult to find any significant portion of Big Blue Nation willing to give Calipari the benefit of the doubt if Sharpe leaves too though.
The former No. 1-ranked prospect in the high school class of 2022, Sharpe graduated a semester early to enroll at Kentucky with the intention of only practicing this season before playing in 2022-23. After reports surfaced that Sharpe was eligible for the 2022 NBA draft, Calipari and the company publicly flirted with the idea of him playing this season only to eventually announce they were sticking to the plan to only practice with the team.
Sharpe’s camp has insisted publicly that he still plans to play for Kentucky next season, but NBA draft analysts continue to report he is expected to start his professional career this summer, projecting him as a possible top-10 pick. Even Calipari has acknowledged Sharpe is likely to test the draft waters to work out for teams.
“I think that was what was best for him is how we did it,” Calipari said of Sharpe after the Saint Peter’s loss. “Would he have been a good player this year? Yeah, he’d been pretty good. He’d have been pretty good. But he joined us midseason. Trying to get him up to all the stuff that we were doing was hard.
“Then it came a point late, maybe we could, should have him in there. We just, you know, together, chose, let’s just wait.”
Considering Sharpe plays the position where the current Wildcats crumbled amid injuries and poor play down the stretch, the fact that Calipari chose not to use a possible top-10 pick in games has already angered many fans. If Sharpe leaves without ever playing a game at Kentucky, the complaints will only increase.
At that point, only a return to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend for the first time since 2015 might be enough to salvage Calipari’s approval rating.
Until then, Calipari does not need to worry about the displeasure being directed at anyone but himself.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: UK basketball: Saint Peter’s loss spurs calls to fire John Calipari