Column: The state of college hoops in Kentucky is shifting, and it’s not in favor of UK


Kenny Payne talks to guard Charles Matthews on the sidelines during the UK vs. Mississippi State mens basketball game on Jan. 20, 2015, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Taylor Pence | Staff

Hunter Shelton

The state of mens college basketball in Kentucky is subject to undergo a dramatic shift in the lead up to next season. 

Yes, the season isn’t entirely over for the Bluegrass. Murray State will attempt to right UK’s wrongs against Saint Peter’s in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night. But for Wildcats and Cardinals fans, all eyes are on to the offseason. 

It was a rough 48 hours for Big Blue Nation, to say the least. Not only did it witness the worst and most embarrassing loss in Kentucky program history, but it also watched a beloved former assistant return home to his alma mater. 

Kenny Payne was introduced as the new head coach of Louisville on Friday, as he received a six-year contract through the 2027-28 season. After spending 10 seasons on John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, Payne left to join the New York Knicks staff, where he stayed for nearly two seasons before returning home to UofL.

The hire by the Cards was an expected one. Chris Mack was sucked into the whirlpool of scandals that surrounded the program following the ugly departure of Rick Pitino. The last few seasons have knocked the prestige of Louisville basketball down the totem pole, as the program is now on a five-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament.

When the new search for a head coach began, it was clear to most that there was only one candidate for the job. 

Payne’s road to rebuilding one of the most storied programs in college basketball will likely be a treacherous one. The damage done to Louisville hoops is visible, but not irreparable. 

One thing that Payne does have in his corner, however, is the immediate support of a passionate fanbase. Although Cardinals fans are craving to see a good product on the court, they’ll have patience with one of their own leading the charge into a new era of UofL hoops. 

Speaking of support from a passionate fanbase, approval ratings for Calipari took quite the hit after the Wildcats were bounced by No. 15 seeded Saint Peter’s in overtime in the opening round of the big dance on Thursday night. 

There is no fanbase that expects more out of its team than BBN and Kentucky. Three consecutive years with no tournament victories isn’t a great way to keep the crowd happy. 

Calipari has now wrapped up 13 seasons at the helm of UK. Despite the gaudy win-loss record and laundry list of players he has coached that now reside in the ranks of the NBA, that sole national championship has slowly creeped onto center stage, season by season.

Heartbreak can be a hard thing to deal with in March, and Kentucky fans know that better than most. A tournament loss in the second weekend and beyond for the Cats can often be cushioned by the fact that there’s a great chance they’ll be right back in the same spot next postseason. 

That was the case, at least.

Calipari was quick to wave off the 2020-21 season as a fluke due to the challenges brought on by COVID-19. As the following season trickled by, it felt like the ‘gold standard’ of college hoops had returned. Behind a veteran group with all the skill and athleticism in the world, the 2022 NCAA Tournament was set to witness Kentucky’s return to the top of the mountain.

Then the Saint Peter’s Peacocks strolled into Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and outplayed the Wildcats for 45 minutes. That seems rather gold star worthy.

Following Thursday night, the good, bad, and ugly sides of the Kentucky faithful took to social media to…vent, lets call it.

Spearheading the levelheaded conversations, as always, was firing Calipari. It’s a tale as old as time, the spoiled fanbase awaits its return to greatness, but the check doesn’t get cashed. The only logical solution is parting ways with the man who has won 365 games as head coach of the program. 

One or two weeks go by. The new recruiting class graphics get released, a photo op here and there by Calipari, and players announce their decisions to enter the NBA draft.

All of a sudden, all is forgiven and its time to move on to next season. The football spring game is right around the corner, anyways!

There may not be enough bananas in the world for Will Levis to eat that could distract BBN from what happened on Thursday night. 

Roll the Christian Laettner tape as many times as you’d like. Watch Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker end the perfect season all day long. This one is going to sting worse for Kentucky fans. 

So, for once, are those crazy people who call for Calipari’s job at the drop of a hat, finally on to something? 

The same old offense was brought to a screeching halt. Tennessee laid the blueprint and the Peacocks followed suit. After ranting and raving about how nice it is to finally have some maturity in a locker room, Calipari couldn’t shake the nerves of his players. The patented ‘tweaks’ that were made in the lead up to the tournament failed to fix the backdoor cuts and poor ball movement.

Is the magic gone? Has Calipari finally failed to adapt with the game he’s dominated for so many years? Is this the end of one of the greatest head coaching stints in basketball history?

Don’t be silly, of course it isn’t. Some change may be good, however, and Payne’s new pursuit for greatness at Louisville could be the catalyst. 

Although the game between the Cats and Cards was canceled this season due to COVID-19 issues within the UofL program, the buildup lacked its usual punch. The rivalry has lost its juice. 

That blame falls directly in the lap of Louisville for not holding up its part of the bargain, which is building a basketball team that is capable of meeting the program’s high standards. Give Payne some time, and he’ll have that sorted out. 

With no direct competition in-state, its been smooth sailing for Calipari, up until Thursday. Meanwhile, Murray State is set to play for the right to its first ever Sweet 16 appearance in program history, a place the Wildcats haven’t been to in three years. 

In the minds of BBN, as average as things could get, at least UK wasn’t in the same boat as Louisville. 

Things sure can change quickly.