LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky All-American forward Oscar Tshiebwe is wondering whether the Wildcats' walk-ons should play at this point in a frustrating season, just to show some fire.
For college basketball’s reigning player of the year to challenge his talented teammates speaks volumes of the crisis within one of the sport’s most prestigious and successful programs.
“Play the people who are willing to fight, even some walk-ons,” the usually affable senior said after Tuesday night’s 71-68 home loss to South Carolina. “Put the people who try to look cute on offense where they don’t want to play defense, put them on the bench. We’re here to fight and to try to do something.”
Kentucky began the season No. 4 and was favored to win the Southeastern Conference — along with its own usual high expectations of a national championship. At this point, the Wildcats have some work to do to even just get on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The team's passionate fan base has unleashed hurt and anger on talk shows and social media, even calling for coach John Calipari’s exit. Reports that Texas has reached out to the Hall of Famer for its coaching vacancy have only fueled that once-unthinkable sentiment to the point that one fan was escorted from Rupp Arena on Tuesday night because of a sign that said, “Please go to Texas.”
Yes, it has come to that within Big Blue Nation.
Calipari will earn $8.5 million this season with $53 million remaining on a “lifetime” contract through the 2028-29 season that doesn't have a buyout. He said this week he has not spoken with Texas, and insisted that he ignores the noise.
But Calipari knows the discontent is there and getting louder with each discouraging defeat.
“And are fans mad? They should be,” he said Tuesday after Kentucky’s 28-game home winning streak was snapped. “We lost at home. We don’t lose at home. We lost at home."
Calipari also addressed the obvious: a 10-6 Kentucky team that's 1-3 in the SEC must improve, starting with himself.
The Wildcats are struggling with chemistry and consistency on both ends of the floor. Calipari's strategy and recruiting are enduring harsh scrutiny. Injuries haven't helped, though Tshiebwe is averaging 16 points and 13.1 rebounds per game after a preseason procedure on his right knee. Still, a physical Alabama squad limited him to six rebounds and four points in a 78-52 shellacking in which Kentucky's starters tallied just 27 points against the now-No. 4 Crimson Tide.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas believes it's too soon to panic, but noted that the Wildcats must step it up in the second half of the season.
“This is not an X-and-O issue, this is a player issue," Bilas said in a phone interview. "And the players have to bring more, do more collectively and individually than they’ve done. Some players are going to be more capable of doing more than others. But this isn’t an issue of run a different offense and all of a sudden everything gets better.”
Whatever needs to be done, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart expressed faith in Calipari's ability to fix it during an interview Friday on Kentucky Sports Radio.
“We’ve battled some injury bugs, we’ve battled some confidence bugs and hopefully we can get those things put behind us," Barnhart said. "We’ve got 14, 15 games left in the regular season and get where we want to get to postseason and make a run. We’re famous for doing that and Cal’s teams are famous for doing that.”
In a hoops-mad state that expects championships and annual top-three recruiting classes, the problem is that Kentucky hasn’t won an NCAA championship since 2012, made a Final Four since going 38-1 in the 2014-15 season or been a serious national title contender since an overtime loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the Big Dance in 2020, and 9-16 collapse the next year left the Wildcats out altogether.
Tshiebwe’s phenomenal breakout keyed last season’s rebound, but the team was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by No. 15 Saint Peter’s — considered Kentucky’s worst NCAA loss ever.
With the 6-foot-9 Tshiebwe returning, there were, again, high expectations. As of now, Kentucky's tournament resume lacks a Quad 1 victory after losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, 'Bama and now-No. 20 Missouri by double digits.
This week's loss to the Gamecocks demonstrated everything Kentucky has done wrong. The Wildcats never led against the SEC’s lowest-rated team, and it took a furious rally to get within a point before missing attempts to tie it up in the final seconds. Afterward, Tshiebwe lamented.
“Some of us coming in are taking things for granted," he said. "I just tell them, (that) the coaches, they cannot do it for us. They just come out with the game plan with who we are going to depend on and how we are going to play offense.
"We come to Kentucky for a very good reason, we come chasing greatness. And if you come not willing to fight, it’s going to be tough.”
Kentucky’s immediate outlook looks dire with a visit Saturday to No. 5 Tennessee, which won last year’s meeting 76-63 in Knoxville and four of the last six matchups overall. Volunteers coach Rick Barnes nonetheless expects the Wildcats' best this weekend and beyond with Calipari.
“I’m not sure he’s had his whole team together all year,” Barnes said Thursday. “One thing I do know is his teams always get better and play their best basketball late in the year.”
Then the Wildcats host No. 2 Kansas, the reigning national champions, on Jan. 28 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Jayhawks no doubt will aim to avenge last season’s 80-62 rout at Allen Fieldhouse.
Kentucky also has two meetings against No. 15 Arkansas and a home rematch with the Volunteers.
Considering the Wildcats lost to a South Carolina team that got drilled by 43 at home by Tennessee, they can’t afford to look past any SEC opponent. But right now, the concern is whether the Wildcats can beat one.
“Every game we play is going to be a dogfight with us being Kentucky," forward Daimion Collins said. "We just have to fight, work hard, rebound and defend. If we do those things we’ll win some games.”
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