Why this NCAA Tournament is the most important in John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky

John Calipari is right about one thing.

It’s the NCAA Tournament that matters.

In fact, you can make a strong case that in Calipari’s 15-year tenure as the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball coach, no NCAA Tournament has been more important to both his tenure and the future of the program as this one.

If Kentucky reaches the Final Four, or even the Elite Eight — maybe the Sweet 16 — the deep run can act as validation the Calipari administration has returned to the right direction.

If the Cats fail to make it past the first weekend for the third straight NCAA Tournament, then another uncomfortable offseason will be dominated by questions about whether the 65-year-old coach can ever return to his glory days.

And another knockout the first weekend appears a distinct possibility after No. 2 seed Kentucky’s 97-87 loss to No. 7 seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday night. The loss was the third time in four years that the Cats experienced a one-and-done in the league tourney.

On the things-that-matter scale, Kentucky’s Friday loss pales in comparison to the the way Kentucky lost.

On Jan. 13 in College Station, Texas A&M relentlessly attacked the rim for a 97-92 overtime win. Guards Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford combined for 59 points. Taylor scored 31; Radford 28.

Two months later, the Aggies again relentlessly attacked the rim on the way to another 97-point performance. Taylor scored 32. Radford scored 23.

It was as if those “we’re a different team now” proclamations were empty promises. And not much has changed. Kentucky was not a good defensive team when SEC play began. Twenty games later, it’s still not a good defensive team.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metrics, the Cats have dropped to 108th nationally. Not one of the 20 Final Four participants over the past five seasons finished the season with a defensive efficiency rating in triple digits.

To be sure, we know matchups dictate the postseason. Consider Friday’s quarterfinals at Bridgestone Arena. Mississippi State beat No. 1 seed Tennessee in the regular season and did so again in Friday’s opener. Auburn routed South Carolina in the regular season and did so again. Texas A&M made it 3-for-3 in the evening’s opener. Then Florida closed the night by beating Alabama, as it did the week before in Gainesville.

And conference tournaments are funny things. Everyone knows everything there is to know about everyone else. And it wasn’t just ninth-ranked Kentucky. No. 8-ranked Creighton and No. 11-ranked Duke lost on Thursday. No. 5-ranked Tennessee and No. 6-ranked Arizona lost on Friday.

Ah, but Kentucky is Kentucky. Eight national titles. Losing is not tolerated for long here. With good reason. Under Calipari, Kentucky hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2015, and it hasn’t hung a banner since 2012.

This has been the most enjoyable Kentucky team to watch in quite some time. It plays fast. It shares the ball. It leads the nation in 3-point shooting. It roots for one another. It has packed Rupp Arena once again.

A month or so ago, Calipari began asserting this team was built for March. Putting the ball in the basket matters in the Big Dance. “We just need to get a little better on defense,” Cal said at the time.

Just when you thought the Cats had accomplished that goal, Friday happened. Like a slap in the face. All of a sudden that five-game win streak that raised Big Blue Nation’s hopes dissolved in a puddle of fears.

The season begins again the NCAA Tournament. Maybe Friday was a needed reality check that finally hammers home the fact that this team can’t outscore everyone. Stops are important, too.

If it wasn’t, if the damage is lasting and Kentucky is once again putting the the basketballs away early, we’re in for another cruel summer. Cal was right. Forget the SEC Tournament. It’s the NCAA Tournament that matters. Maybe now more than ever.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells at a referee during the SEC Tournament quarterfinals against Texas A&M at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells at a referee during the SEC Tournament quarterfinals against Texas A&M at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

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