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Kentucky Basketball

Regarding the 'Cal Should Have More Titles' Narrative...

April 3, 2019
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It is that time of year again when rumors of John Calipari leaving UK for supposed greener pastures come out of the woodwork and all of Big Blue Nation holds their collective breath until Cal speaks on them. 

This season, that process was expedited as UCLA received permission to speak with Coach Cal about their opening and offered him a 6-year $48 Million Dollar deal. 

He, of course, turned that down and UK Athletics responded swiftly and aggressively by awarding Cal a lifetime contract, as well as 10 years of being a paid Ambassador of the program after he retires. 

This is great news for BBN as it makes it clear that Calipari will be at UK until he retires from coaching and then some. The only downside is that this has now created another agenda for certain national media to belittle Cal’s accomplishments and claim he is not worth it. Some have even gone so far as to say that Cal has ‘played’ UK or even ‘conned’ them by using UCLA as leverage. 

The argument those bitter media members use is that Cal has only had 1 national title in his 10 years at UK and that he should have several more. I did some digging and found out that of course not only are they wrong, but they are also uneducated loud mouths spewing venom to generate a self-pat on the back.

THE NATIONAL TITLE NARRATIVE

The only somewhat valid knock you can have on Calipari is that he only has 1 national title. The argument is that he has so much talent coming through that he should have 2, 3, or even 4 already.

As a devil’s advocate, I wanted to step back and see if taking my blue tinted glasses and see if Cal really should have more than 1 title in his first 10 years.

The first thing I wanted to look at was who was considered the best team in the tournament and did they win it all. Since 1995, If you look at the teams ranked #1 in either the AP or Coaches poll going into the tournament, there have only been 2 teams to be ranked #1 *and* win the national title. 2001 Duke and 2012 Kentucky (score one for Cal). That is 23 years worth of polls where the #1 ranked team did not win the tournament 21 out of 23 years, or 9% of the time #1 won it all.

To put it another way, only 1 out of 21 non-UK teams that were ranked #1 going into the tournament won the title (5%). Cal was also ranked #1 going into the 2015 tournament and did not win, so he is 1 for 2 (50%) at UK while everyone else is clipping 5%.

Next, I thought I would look at the Tournament Committee’s overall #1 seed that started back in 2005. This is who the committee designates as the favorite to win it all and is supposedly rewarded with the most viable path to that championship.

Over the course of 15 NCAA tournaments, the best team, as designated by the committee has won the national title only 3 times. That is a 20% pull through ratio. By almost anyone’s standards that would be a low conversion for the supposed best team to follow through with what was expected.

However, it is not easy to win the tournament. You have to win six consecutive games, and likely at least four of them are going to be against Top 25 or better Teams. It is a gauntlet that necessitates more than talent. You have to have some breaks bounce your way, you have to have a good bracket, you need to be close to your fanbase to have the home game feel, and you also need certain teams you do not match up well with to be eliminated.

In fact, looking at the numbers, almost as many overall #1 seeds failed to even make the Final Four (7) as those that did make it (8). For the record, Calipari has been the overall #1 seed at UK twice and he won the title in 2012 and lost in the Final Four in 2015. This means he is 2 for 2 (100%) in at least making it to the final four and 1 for 2 on winning the title.

So, in a system where only 47% of the overall #1 seeds make the Final Four, Cal is 100%. Additionally, whereas only 20% of overall #1 seeds win the title, Cal is batting .500.

The final thing I wanted to look at for this determination was the look/feel test. Throwing out the numbers and the clear difficulty in winning a title, I wanted to see how many missed opportunities have Cal/UK had to win another title and could not cash in.  Most people will immediately say the 38-0 team should have won it all, or that the ultra-explosive 2010 John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Boogie Cousins, and Patrick Patterson should have. 

For me, the real missed opportunity for additional hardware was the national title game loss vs. UCONN and Kevin Ollie. Kentucky was an 8-seed and they got to the title game by beating the highest possible seeds they could face.

They took down undefeated 34-0 1-seed Wichita State. Then they beat 4-seed Louisville, followed by 2-seed Michigan for the Final Four berth. They had a very slight break in the Final Four by beating 2-seed Wisconsin and were finally rewarded with avoiding the 1-seed Gators by drawing 7-seed UCONN. An NCAA tournament record for highest seeds to play for the National Title.

They had beaten better teams all the way through and UCONN certainly was not a world beater. They were a 7-seed that had gotten hot and rode the back of Shabazz Napier to the title appearance. Although lower seeded, Kentucky was the better team. They had more talent, better coaching and were playing unbelievable basketball up until that point. 

To say they did not play well in that game is an understatement. They trailed at the half and only scored 54 points. They actually played good defense, more than well enough to win, but they just could not get anything going on offense. As you will see below they did not break 40% shooting, in addition to 31% from three and 54% from the line, leaving 11 points on the floor.

Kentucky was absolutely the better team, but they truly missed the opportunity and beat themselves in that game.

2010 was a great team, likely the most ‘fun’ team to watch in the Calipari era, but it was also a flawed team. Admittedly, they did lose to a team they should not have in West Virginia. However, had they won, they still needed 2 more wins and you never know... you just cannot assume those wins.

2015 was a historically great team on the verge of a ‘never been done before’ type of history. The problem for that team is that the bracket did them no favors. It was a year in which there were three clear cut best teams in America. The fifth best team that season, Notre Dame, would likely have been a national title contender in any other year along with the fourth best team Arizona.

They eeked by that Notre Dame team before facing the third best (you could argue second best) team in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin was not just a good team, they had a record breaking/historically good offense that season. As Kentucky being the overall #1 seed, they really should have been on the opposite side of the bracket from Wisconsin & Duke, meaning a title game matchup with whoever emerged from Duke vs. Wisconsin.

Even a win vs. Wisconsin would have led to playing the second best (you can argue third best) team in Duke. The opportunity was massive, but the assumption that it was there for the taking on a silver platter is simply not true, that belongs to the 2014 title game loss. Essentially that team was going to have to beat #2, #3, and #5 in America in succession that season to get a title. I also personally think a regular season loss would have done this team wonders.

So, I will relent that Calipari should have 2 titles right now instead of 1, you can even flip 2014 and 2015 in my thinking and I can get on board. However, the idea that he should have at least 2, maybe 3 or 4 titles is simply a hyperbole that nobody in the history of coaching could have matched excluding the Wooden/Sam Gilbert aided days.

HOW OFTEN DO ELITE COACHES WIN TITLES

Speaking of coaches, I decided to also look at other elite, historical and current coaches success to compare Calipari to them. I was curious about how long into their tenure (at a school where a national title was in the cards) did it take them to win a title. I looked at the ‘drought’ between titles for multiple title winners. I then looked at the ratio of how many years coaching per title did they generate at said school(s). This part was actually inspired when a friend showed me a post on a random UK fan message board laying out that ratio.

That is a total of 326 years of coaching, 76 Final Fours, and 28 National Titles. The average years per Final Four of that group is 4.3 years, while the average years per National Title is 11.6 years. 

If you look at Coach Cal’s first decade at UK, he is surpassing both of those numbers, in fact, his Final Four ratio of 1 ever 2.5 years is better than *any* of those coaches thus far.

Another interesting aspect is to look at how long it took each coach to finally get a national title, Cal got one faster at UK than any of the aforementioned coaches at their schools. It took Dean Smith 21 years before he got his first and he went another 11 years before he got his second. It took Rupp 16 years and he even had a 7-year drought between titles.

Tom Izzo is a guy that some UK fans think could be a replacement for Cal. He has one title that took him 5 years to get and is currently in a drought of 18 years. That could change this weekend and he gets his second, which would align him with 2 titles in 22 years, or 11 years per title... just like the collective average of those elite coaches.

Jim Boeheim... took him 26 years to get his first, and in 34 years he only went to 5 Final Fours. If you extrapolate Cal to the same 34 years Boeheim has had, he would have 14 Final Fours and 4 National Titles. 

How about Jay Wright? Wright is one of the coaches that seem to be on the tip of the tongue of who should replace Cal if he left. Granted, Wright does have 2 in the last 4 years, but it has been feast or famine with him. It took him 15 years to get one and in 18 years he has less final fours than Calipari in 10 years.

Also, looking at the ‘drought’ of national titles is pretty eye-opening. Cal has now gone 7 seasons since the 2012 title. The average ‘drought’ for the aforementioned coaches was 7.2 years between National Titles. Even Coach K has had two separate ‘droughts’ of 9 years between titles.

CONCLUSION

The reason that people think Coach Cal has underperformed or is even overrated is that he has Kentucky in a position to go to a final four every single year. When you are in the discussion every single year for a Final Four or even a National Title you become a target when you do not achieve it. Especially among media members who would sell their soul to bring Cal down.

This is simply not the case at every other school. Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, and maybe Kansas (but they are poised for a slide that began this year) fit that category but that is it. For almost every school out there they try and build a roster to a point where they can hopefully make a run every 3-4 years, or an entire recruiting cycle.

Everyone loves Jay Wright, and the two recent titles are great, no doubt about it. However, what is his performance on years they did not win it all? Going back to 2009 when he made his first Final Four this is their following tournament performances vs. Kentucky/Cal:

If you are telling me, as a UK fan that you would rather have that roller coaster which amounts to 1 extra national title then I have some oceanfront property to sell you. The feast or famine model is great when food is on the table, but miserable and unhappy when not.  BBN would not stand for a Final Four to be followed up with Six straight years of misery before he got that national title.

I will be the first to admit that Calipari has some bad tourney losses under his belt, no denying that. Conversely, you have to get to the big games and inching toward a Final Four to be in that position and nobody does that more than Calipari. This is not opinion but fact; Calipari has more NCAA tournament wins at UK than any other coach in that time period. He has also over performed his seed more than any other coach in America while at UK.

So, while some say he is underperforming, the numbers prove that he is on pace or even outpacing the greatest coaches in the history of the game during his time at UK.

Every single fall, Big Blue Nation has to look forward to a team and a coach who has at least a puncher’s chance at a national title. EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.

Other programs do not have that luxury. They have to hope that this is the year it all breaks their way. They have to hope this is the year of being injury free. They have to hope that the basketball gods will smile on them for three weekends in March and April. 

So, if you find yourself wondering why Calipari does not have more titles, do yourself a favor and relax and enjoy the ride because if it does not happen this year, it very well could happen next year... which is always better than hoping it can happen in the next half-decade.

 

 
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