Every college basketball program was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic last season. Was any program impacted as much as Kentucky? Let John Calipari count the ways UK simply wasn’t UK.
“I know everybody will say he’s full of crap,” Calipari said during a Build Up 2 Basketball visit on the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show. “I did not know we were 8-8 in the league until about three days ago. I had no idea.”
Actually, the Wildcats were 8-9 against SEC opponents, but continue, Coach.
“All I worried about was keeping kids healthy, which meant we never came together, we never trusted. We were never together. They never came to my house. They never felt what it is to be a player here.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Kentucky finished 9-16 overall, just its second losing season since 1926-27 – and posted the first losing home record in Rupp Arena history – during a year marked by limited fan attendance throughout the sport. No college basketball program has a home-court advantage as large as the 20,000-plus who routinely pack Rupp and the thousands that hit the road to support the Wildcats.
“Our fans carry us to wins,” Calipari said. “This program is as much about the fans as anything else. They’re all sellouts on the road. We had none of that.”
Big Blue Nation will welcome the absence of attendance restrictions this season and the presence of an unusually experienced roster that’s expected to compete for a championship again. UK was picked to win the conference by a select panel of SEC and national media members and ranked No. 10 nationally in the preseason AP poll. Four Wildcats were among the 12 preseason All-SEC selections, more than any other team:
Sahvir Wheeler on the first team, Keion Brooks Jr., Kellan Grady and Oscar Tshiebwe on the second team.
That reflects Calipari’s embrace of the transfer portal during and after the Hall of Famer’s first losing season as a college head coach since, well, his first season as a college head coach at UMass in 1988-89. The 5-foot-9 Wheeler arrived from Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs in scoring and set the program’s single-season assist record. The 6-5 Grady led Davidson in scoring. The 6-9, 255-pound Tshiebwe transferred from West Virginia to Kentucky at midseason last year and got a head start practicing with the Wildcats. UK welcomed another Division I transfer in 6-3 CJ Fredrick from Iowa.
That infusion of veteran talent, along with a revamped coaching staff, has allowed Calipari to put last season in the rearview mirror.
“It’s a blip,” he said. “I move on. This team I’m coaching is like past teams where every practice you’re getting something out of it. Those are my best teams, the teams that win all the games and do the stuff that they’ve done. This team has the traits. Now you gotta go do it, and everybody’s out to get you. Every game we play is a Super Bowl. How about this? Teams that never thought they could beat us beat us a year ago. Now they think they can beat us. It’s gonna make it even harder for us.”
Except this year, unlike last year, the Big Blue Nation will be able to show up in force to help.