LEXINGTON, Ky. — After Kentucky basketball lost its fourth consecutive game, the coach who’d never lost more than two in a row in his first eight seasons told the Wildcats that he had clearly failed them.
“I haven’t built enough trust where when I talk to them, [they think], ‘I’m going to do what this man says.’ They’re not that,” John Calipari said Wednesday night at Auburn, where an impressive start had disintegrated into another unfocused, undisciplined finish. “I don’t know if it’s outside stuff, but I told them I failed them. But they also failed each other because they don’t play for each other.”
Those were not encouraging words with just five regular-season games remaining. Kentucky (17-9, 6-7 SEC) has gone from contending for a top-4 seed to wondering whether it will even be invited to the NCAA Tournament. In that way, has Calipari failed a team that is full of former 5-star recruits but also starts five freshmen?
“No, no, I don’t feel like he’s failed us,” point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “There’s been some miscommunication and we just haven’t been really trusting him.”
“I wouldn’t put none of this on Cal,” added forward Jarred Vanderbilt. “It’s on us as players. We’re the ones out there competing. We’re the ones that have to go out there and fight. It’s trust amongst each other. Cal’s going to coach us; we just have to come together as a team and fight.”
That needs to start Saturday at home against Alabama (17-9, 8-5), a team with its own elite freshmen but also enough veterans that the Crimson Tide are fighting for their own ticket to the Big Dance. They’ve beaten No. 10 Auburn, No. 18 Tennessee, No. 23 Oklahoma and won at Florida in the last month.
It will take some of that trust Calipari has been talking about to avoid a stunning fifth consecutive loss and serious NIT talk for the Wildcats. Gilgeous-Alexander seems like the one player who has bought in, but can he bring others along?
“I think every guy is just going to have to find it within himself to trust [Calipari]. I can’t trust him for you,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. And why should they? “My advice would probably be just that we all obviously want to get to the next level and I think nobody in the country has the track record that Coach does. Guys that listen to him and trust him get to where they want to go and do great things.”
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To that end, current pros and former Cats Willie Cauley-Stein and Bam Adebayo are back in Lexington this week visiting during the NBA All-Star break — and Calipari hopes their presence serves as a useful reminder.
“Willie Cauley-Stein walked in here yesterday and he said, ‘Why aren’t they just trying to do this together? Just be one and they all benefit?’ ” recalled Calipari, who wonders the same thing. “I said, ‘Why did you trust me?’ And then he went like this …”
Cauley-Stein pointed to pictures of all of the NBA players on the wall at Kentucky’s practice facility. In Calipari’s first eight seasons here, the Wildcats have produced 31 draft picks, 24 first-rounders, 17 lottery picks and three No. 1 overall selections.
The current crop, however, is shaping up to be Calipari’s weakest draft class yet — and they’re losing at an unprecedented clip. So maybe now is a good time to start trusting him, while there still is time.
“You can’t be stubborn and lose,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, the only Wildcats player who has seen his pro stock rise this season. “We’re all trying to win and trying to be good, so you gotta give in … trust the process and follow that plan.”