What another first-round exit means for Kentucky and John Calipari


When it all began, Kentucky was dancing. Literally. John Wall, the five-star freshman and anchor of John Calipari’s first recruiting class at Kentucky during the 2009-10 season, had gone viral with a dance that fans around the country mimicked. From there, it was the run to the national title in 2012 with future NBA superstar Anthony Davis. The 2014-15 squad made the Final Four after a 38-0 start. And then, the glory stopped.

The No. 3 seed Wildcats’ 80-76 loss to 14-seed Oakland in the first round of the men’s NCAA tournament Thursday night extended an ongoing trend for blue-blood program that continues to recruit some of the best players in America but has failed to translate that talent into significant postseason wins over the past decade. Give the Golden Grizzlies credit for outplaying Kentucky for 40 minutes, and for Jack Gohlke’s explosive 32-point performance.

Yet, for a team that has one NCAA tournament win since the 2019 edition, the future seems uncertain after its latest loss. ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, John Gasaway and Jeff Borzello discuss the significance of this loss for Kentucky and the win for Oakland.


What was the most important moment of the game?

John Gasaway: With apologies to the amazing Jack Gohlke, the corner 3 DQ Cole hit with 37 seconds left in the game was absolutely crucial. Kentucky had pulled within one, and it looked like maybe the Wildcats were going to win after all. Then Cole nailed the shot that sealed UK’s fate.

Myron Medcalf: From the 8:14 mark until the 4:43 mark of the second half, Oakland had just one field goal. That was the stretch that allowed Kentucky to finally make a run and cut Oakland’s lead to 64-62. Ninety seconds later, though, the Wildcats were down by six again. They had a shot, and then they let it slip away again. They hit shots down the stretch to keep the game close, but the earlier run had been an opportunity to strike — and they just couldn’t.

Jeff Borzello: The moment Gohlke checked into the game with 15:55 left in the first half. He attempted two 3-pointers in his first 32 seconds on the floor — missing them both — but brought a confidence and energy that never disappeared. He ended up producing one of the legendary performances in recent NCAA tournament history, finishing with 32 points off the bench on 10-for-20 3-point shooting. He didn’t attempt a 2-point field goal. It was in line with the rest of his season, as he attempted 327 3s and just eight 2s.


How significant was this loss for Kentucky?

Gasaway: Enormously significant, because it comes on the heels of the loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s just two years ago. Now it has happened again, and this isn’t the way things are supposed to work when you’re Kentucky. Look at history, and consider what the fans of Big Blue Nation have come to expect based purely on reality. The Wildcats were 26-1 in the round of 64 from 1988 through 2019. Now, in the past three tournaments, UK is just 1-2 in that round. That will not be tolerated.

Medcalf: It’s significant because it prompts legitimate questions about Calipari’s approach to winning in this climate, which is changing in real time. Calipari said he told his team after the game that “this one is painful.” The scar from this loss could linger a long time and ultimately lead to a leadership change for the winningest program in college basketball.


What needs to change for the Wildcats going forward?

Borzello: Stylistically, this Kentucky team was different and seemed better equipped to win in 2024 — and win in March — than past Kentucky teams. Calipari recruited a bunch of quick, dynamic guards who could play fast, make 3s and create their own shots whenever they wanted. And it still didn’t work. In a world in which teams are starting three or four seniors or graduate transfers, it’s still tough to win in the NCAA tournament with multiple freshmen in your lineup. Given where Calipari has his most success on the recruiting trail, however, it’s unlikely the Wildcats will suddenly ignore high schoolers. But he might have to land a couple more transfers to better balance his rosters.


What does this mean for John Calipari’s future in Lexington? And is there an obvious solution?

Borzello: That’s the elephant in the room. The $33 million elephant. Calipari would be owed just over that amount if the program fired him after this season. In theory, there are ways Kentucky can come up with the money to buy out the rest of his contract. Zero Sweet 16 appearances, a single tournament win since 2019 — there’s going to be a large segment of the Kentucky fan base that wants Calipari out.

The challenge is who to turn to after Calipari. Baylor’s Scott Drew just announced he was staying at Baylor after Louisville knocked on his door for its current opening; Alabama’s Nate Oats just signed an extension with a huge buyout; Iowa State’s T.J. Otzelberger would cost about $18 million to poach; UConn’s Dan Hurley probably isn’t leaving Storrs. Does Kentucky make a run at someone like Billy Donovan? Between Calipari’s guaranteed money, buying out its next head coach and then paying the new coach’s salary, we could be talking about a $50 million-plus investment. But it will undoubtedly be a talking point.

Medcalf: The Kentucky fan base will be more furious than it has ever been. The divorce rumors have been brewing for years, and this loss could make it all final. The Calipari buyout is a major factor. But the program is supported by people with deep pockets, and they might not have to pay the buyout all in one lump sum if it comes down to that.

Calipari has dominated the one-and-done landscape and attracted both top high school recruits and elite transfers. With NIL and the portal, however, even the blue bloods aren’t safe. The Wildcats would need a coach who has somehow been able to navigate the rapidly changing landscape. There’s no clear replacement who can both duplicate Calipari’s success and handle the pressure of coaching in Lexington. He’s probably not leaving, as Jeff said. But if Calipari does exit, you call Hurley’s people, ask for a number that might make him think about it and go from there.


How far can Oakland go?

Gasaway: Jack Gohlke is the most prolific 3-point shooter in the field. Trey Townsend is the Horizon player of the year. Oakland beating Kentucky was a surprise, but it was by no means unimaginable. Greg Kampe has a team that can score from both inside and outside, as the Wildcats learned all too well. It’s not a good thing for UK that we can compare its recent tournament upsets, but this Golden Grizzlies team is about as strong on paper as Saint Peter’s was two years ago. A lot of things had to go right for the Peacocks to reach the 2022 Elite Eight, but they did make it that far.

Borzello: Don’t discount another win from Oakland against the winner of Texas Tech and NC State, even if Gohlke doesn’t hit another 10 3s. Townsend has been unguardable all season, regardless of competition. He had 17 points and 12 rebounds against Kentucky and in the regular season went for 19 and 10 against Illinois as well as 28 points vs. Xavier. Rocket Watts has played at the high-major level and won’t be afraid of the moment. This team was battle tested in the nonconference portion of the season, and is playing fearless basketball with plenty of momentum.



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