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Kentucky wildcat basketball

SO SAD : I will never play for Kentucky again Caitlin Clark

Kentucky basketball freshman Reed Sheppard talks to the media after the Wildcats’ 80-76 loss to Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tournament on March 21, 2024. at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

Things were plenty bad when John Calipari came to town 15 years ago.

The situation that Billy Gillispie left behind was a mess by Kentucky basketball standards. There were zero NCAA Tournament wins in his only two seasons on the job, and the Wildcats were coming off a 2008-09 campaign that ended in the NIT, the first time UK had failed to make March Madness in 18 years, when the school was still under probation and a postseason ban.

Things are plenty bad right now, as well, following last week’s loss to Oakland, the Cats’ second first-round upset in the past three years, prolonging this stretch of March misery to four postseasons with just one NCAA Tournament victory.

It’s probably easy for Kentucky fans to recall that Calipari’s lightning-quick turnaround in Lexington followed the immediate influx of one-and-done freshmen like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe — players who were either already committed to him or getting ready to when he was still the Memphis head coach. That was certainly a big part of it.

But Gillispie also left behind a strong foundation of established and future Kentucky difference-makers. Without those players, Calipari likely wouldn’t have won so many games right off the bat.

Patrick Patterson was a key player on that first Calipari team that reenergized the UK fan base.

DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson were starters the following season, which ended with Calipari’s first Final Four at Kentucky, snapping a 13-year skid of not advancing that far (the longest such drought in program history). Without those two, the Cats likely wouldn’t have brought a new banner to Rupp Arena that year.

Darius Miller played an important role on those two teams, as well as the following season’s squad. Without Miller, does Kentucky win the 2012 NCAA title, Calipari’s only one in Lexington?

Each of those played an important part in Calipari’s early success, which fueled the overall results of his first several seasons on the job. All four were leftovers from the Gillispie era.

If UK parts ways with Calipari this offseason, history will not repeat itself.

If the Wildcats have a new head coach next season, he will be starting almost entirely from scratch.

Kentucky basketball players D.J. Wagner, left, Reed Sheppard, center, and Zvonimir Ivisic will have tough decisions to make in the coming weeks.
Kentucky basketball players D.J. Wagner, left, Reed Sheppard, center, and Zvonimir Ivisic will have tough decisions to make in the coming weeks. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

If Calipari is back, who will join him?

Regardless of what happens next, Kentucky will lose fifth-year veterans Tre Mitchell and Antonio Reeves. Star freshman Rob Dillingham will be off to the NBA draft. Justin Edwards will likely go that route, too. Even if Calipari returns, it’s probably a stretch to imagine more than one of UK’s trio of 7-footers — Aaron Bradshaw, Zvonimir Ivisic and Ugonna Onyenso — back in town.

That would be quite a bit of turnover. After 15 Calipari offseasons, Kentucky fans are used to it.

The current UK scholarship players not mentioned there? Reed Sheppard, D.J. Wagner, Adou Thiero, Jordan Burks and Joey Hart. And this is where things could get interesting.

Sheppard, Wagner and Thiero — all key players this past season and potential stars in the next one — could still realistically return to Kentucky, possibly with one of those aforementioned bigs.

The Cats also have the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, with six commitments for the 2024-25 season: versatile big man Jayden Quaintance (No. 8 in the 247Sports rankings), small forward Karter Knox (No. 20), shooting guard Billy Richmond (No. 21), point guard Boogie Fland (No. 25), center Somto Cyril (No. 45) and point guard Travis Perry (No. 72).

Here’s the reality of the situation: If Calipari is gone, so is Wagner, whose father was the UK coach’s first major player at Memphis. Likely also gone would be Thiero, whose father played for Calipari at Memphis, that connection sparking his opportunity at Kentucky. Without Calipari back, it’s fair to say that none of those three 7-footers would return either.

Burks, who had a bit of a tumultuous high school career, flashed some promise and found some stability at UK this season, even if he wasn’t playing much by the end of it. He might return to play for Calipari. If there’s major change within the program, you’ll likely see his name in the transfer portal. Hart played only 10 minutes this season, a sign he’s a ways away from being a real contributor.

And that No. 2 recruiting class? Mostly gone. Quaintance, who won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2026 due to his age — making him a possible two-year star at UK — will look elsewhere. Fland will, too. Richmond’s father played for Calipari at Memphis, another family connection leading to a recruiting commitment. Cyril probably wouldn’t end up in Lexington. Knox has ties here — his brother is former UK standout Kevin Knox — but it’s more likely than not he’d play somewhere else if Calipari isn’t the Wildcats’ coach. Relationships rule in recruiting.

These players — like the majority of Cats over the past 15 recruiting cycles — didn’t commit to the University of Kentucky. They committed to John Calipari. Without him, they’re gone.

So, who would be left for the next head coach?

Lyon County star Travis Perry holds his MVP award after winning the boys state championship on Saturday night in Rupp Arena.
Lyon County star Travis Perry holds his MVP award after winning the boys state championship on Saturday night in Rupp Arena. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

If Calipari is out, who stays at UK?

Perry, the all-time leading scorer in Kentucky high school basketball history and the MVP of this year’s Sweet 16, would likely remain committed to the Cats. The 6-foot-2 guard and his family have had nothing but praise for Calipari, but they’re lifelong UK fans, and this is the place Perry wants to be.

And then there’s Sheppard, the national freshman of the year.

Last year’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball has a real decision to make. He’s projected as a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft — possibly a top five selection — but he’s always dreamed of playing for the Wildcats, and finishing his only season the way this one did is not how he imagined that boyhood dream would end.

He could very well declare for the draft and stay there. No one could blame him for that. But if he knew some of his current teammates — guys like Wagner and Thiero and maybe one of the bigs — were coming back, along with this recruiting class, that might give Kentucky a real shot at making an actual run next season.

Under normal circumstances, Sheppard’s decision probably wouldn’t hinge on who’s occupying the head coaching position. He’s been a Wildcat his entire life. He likely would have played here for pretty much anybody.

But now he’s projected as one of the top picks in this year’s NBA draft. And he has a season of familiarity with Calipari. Asked by the Herald-Leader after Thursday’s game about the fact that Calipari would be catching much of the blame for the loss to Oakland, this is how Sheppard responded:

“None of that’s on Coach,” the 19-year-old said. “Coach isn’t out there playing the game. He’s not out there shooting the shots. He’s not out there guarding. He’s not out there doing anything. They prepared us for the game. And we didn’t — we couldn’t stop them defensively. And we didn’t make shots. And we had some bad turnovers. And that’s not on him. He can’t shoot the ball for us. He got us open shots. …

“None of this is on any of the coaches. I don’t care what anybody says. We have the best coach in the world. And we’ve got the best coaching staff in the world. How much we learned from them this year — they’re a great group of guys and a great group of coaches.”

Just a respectful kid doing a respectful thing, you might say. Maybe. But Sheppard’s other answers in that postgame locker room didn’t go on quite that long, and, for this one, he had the most conviction in his voice, gathering himself to say what he did in an interview session that was otherwise filled with pauses as he choked back tears.

Whatever anyone else’s opinion of Calipari — and whether he should have started Sheppard, or gotten him more shots, or whatever — the player himself certainly seemed to have enjoyed playing for him.

He might feel the same way about plenty of other coaches. But — if Calipari is out and nearly all of UK’s projected 2024-25 roster along with it — would Sheppard turn down such an NBA guarantee to come back to such an uncertain situation?

Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard speaks with reporters in the locker room after the Wildcats’ loss to Oakland last week.
Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard speaks with reporters in the locker room after the Wildcats’ loss to Oakland last week. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

The next Kentucky coach

It’s easier to rebuild a program quickly now than it was 15 years ago, even five years ago, those who want Calipari gone will say. That’s probably true.

The transfer portal makes that possible. A new coach at Kentucky — presumably a big name with the UK brand behind him — would be in an enviable position when attacking the portal. But that coach would need a lot of support and a fair amount of luck to make it work in year one.

First, the folks pledging the $33 million over the next five years — or whatever the price to run Calipari off ultimately ends up being — better be prepared to kick in quite a bit extra on the front end for NIL purposes. That’s the surest way of guaranteeing the top transfers these days.

But the new coach would also have to find the right mix of talent, maturity and unselfishness to make it all work. The expectations at Kentucky — no matter the circumstances — are immense, and losing won’t be tolerated long, even for someone starting mostly from scratch.

As Calipari is fond of saying, you don’t get NBA talent in the transfer portal. When a player is that talented, he leaves his old school for the NBA, not another year of college. Piecing together a national contender almost entirely from transfers? That’s a tall task. Maybe an impossible one.

The new guy could bring some recruits — possibly even some veteran players — of his own. That could happen. Taking Baylor coach Scott Drew, for example — long thought to be Mitch Barnhart’s first call in the event of a Calipari departure — he has the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class, led by No. 5 overall prospect VJ Edgecombe (a former UK target) and featuring top 50 players Rob Wright and Jason Asemota.

Perhaps they’d follow to Lexington. That would be a great start. But maybe they wouldn’t. And many coaches balk at funneling their former players via the transfer portal to their new school. It’s not a great look.

And getting Drew is no lock either. If it’s someone else, who would that coach bring?

This will be a delicate balance for anyone who replaces Calipari, whenever that occurs.

One uncomfortable truth of the Calipari era has always been that this type of thing was going to happen at some point if the marriage between UK and its longtime coach ended on a sour note. Calipari’s rosters have always lacked continuity, the allegiances of most of Kentucky’s players laying with the coach, not the school. But cutting ties with Calipari in this specific offseason could make for a particularly rough transition.

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