The Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray vs the Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker in the NBA Playoffs. Both guards played college basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats. May 5, 2023; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) during game three of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No college basketball fans enjoy bragging rights more than those who back the University of Kentucky. From the outside, you might think they would take satisfaction in seeing so many former Wildcats enjoying success in the NBA Playoffs.

You would be both right and wrong. Their feelings are mixed. Yes, it’s impressive that 15 Kentucky alums reached the first round. If you include the play-in tournament, no school had more players in the postseason (17). That’s laudable by any measurement and speaks well of John Calipari’s ability to attract talent to Lexington. But that number also is a reminder of how the program has slumped in recent seasons.

With all that talent, shouldn’t Calipari have more than one national championship to show for it? It’s a fair question. His teams haven’t won a title since 2012 and haven’t reached the Final Four since 2015. That’s a drought for Kentucky, a blueblood that historically is in the same company as Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas. Those programs have had their ups and downs but were all in the 2022 Final Four.

Kentucky has lost ground to its competitors. In 2022, Kansas surpassed Kentucky as the winningest college basketball program ever. This past season, Connecticut earned its fifth NCAA championship, all since 1999. Since Kentucky won it all in 2012, the Huskies have added two banners in the same time frame.

Seeing Anthony Davis dominate in the NBA playoffs is one thing. He delivered that 2012 championship. But when De’Aaron Fox, Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, etc. dominate, Kentucky fans are left with quite a different feeling. Sure, they root for their own. But they’re left wondering if Calipari has failed Calipari the recruiter. Of the top 50 scorers in this year’s playoffs, nine are former Wildcats. Among them, only Davis won a ring in college. Three reached the Final Four: Karl-Anthony Towns, Booker, and Davis.

Even when Calipari was at the height of his coaching powers, he irked the Commonwealth by saying that his goal for the 2014-15 season was not to win a championship but to get eight players selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. That’s not the kind of statement you make to this rabid college fanbase. They only what to hear what you’re doing to bring them closer to another title.

Fans put up with Calipari’s bluster when the program was rolling. But as the Wildcats have struggled in recent years, the tolerance for his arrogance has reached an all-time low. Kentucky has lost 36 games over the past three seasons and has one NCAA tournament victory.

This past season, the heat on Calipari reached its apex. The Wildcats, ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll, were in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. The team rallied but still finished with 12 losses.

In 2019, Calipari signed what was described as a “lifetime contract” but it expires in 2029. There has been speculation about whether or not he’ll stay that long. Being the Kentucky coach has a lot of perks, but it’s also grueling due to the extremely high expectations. Some in the media wondered openly if Calipari might leave for the Texas job.  

That never happened. The 2023-24 season will begin with Calipari in Lexington with the top-ranked recruiting class. Perhaps the Wildcats will rediscover their mojo and return to the Final Four.

Last week, Calipari appeared on The Dan Patrick Show and the $9-million-per-year man said he intends to coach out the remainder of his contract, saying: “I want to do some special things here. We’ve got six years left to do some really good stuff.”

The start of the college basketball season is several months away. Until then, Kentucky fans will watch former Kentucky players excel in the NBA playoffs.

It’s a bittersweet experience.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.