What Started as Contempt for John Calipari in Arkansas Basketball Circles Is Trending Toward Flat-Out Affection

Eric Musselman, John Calipari, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball, Arkansas vs Kentucky
photo credit: UK Athletics

Ten years ago – a touch more – Calipari was coming off a national championship with Kentucky in just his third season at the helm in Lexington. He’d already taken the Wildcats to an Elite Eight and a Final Four in his first two seasons.

Ten years ago – a touch more – Musselman was an assistant coach at Arizona State. He had already taken the Los Angeles D-Fenders to a D-League championship series.

In a world that now more than ever is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately affair, it’s clear the two have traded fortunes. Eric Musselman is coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances at Arkansas and his Razorbacks, after Tuesday’s win, have won three straight games over John Calipari’s Kentucky basketball bunch after Arkansas had lost its previous eight games to Big Blue Nation. Meanwhile one of the most controversial coaches in the modern game, Calipari, is having to stave off calls for his job.

Kentucky Basketball Fans Vent Frustrations

The always-reasonable Kentucky fan base was on a bender in the late hours Tuesday. The Kentucky Rivals’ message board was filled with topics with titles such “Is missing the NCAAT 2 out of 3 years acceptable to you?” and “Enough is Enough. Get Calipari Away From This Program NOW.” Both titles are complete with that precise capitalization and punctuation. 

Some personal favorite posts in those topics:

“He has destroyed Kentucky basketball. Absolutely destroyed it. There has to be a way to get this done and get him away from the program. We are looking seriously at FIVE YEARS without an NCAA tourney win. That’s unthinkable here.

What amount of money is worth the dismantling and destruction of Kentucky Basketball?”


“No. It’s pathetic. It’s not what blue bloods do. Calipari lost himself in the woke world of social Justice. He has ruined any legacy he had prior.”

A couple of real gems. It’s unclear what exactly Calipari has done that’s “woke” in “social Justice,” but the post tells you a lot about the kind of people who want him gone, anyway. It’s also unclear as to whether or not they’re justified in wanting him gone at all.

Comparing Kentucky to Arkansas Basketball

The data suggests they are. Arkansas and Kentucky have been on a clear, opposite path the last four seasons.

Kentucky’s last four seasons:

  • 25-6, 15-3, canceled NCAA Tournament in 2020
  • 9-16, 8-9, no postseason in 2021
  • 26-8, 14-4, Round of 64 in 2022
  • 16-8, 7-4, postseason TBD in 2023

Arkansas’ last four seasons:

  • 20-12, 7-11, canceled NCAA Tournament in 2020
  • 25-7, 13-4, Elite Eight in 2021
  • 28-9, 13-5, Elite Eight in 2022
  • 17-7, 6-5, postseason TBD in 2023

Arkansas’ future appears better were the trends to hold. Consider, too, the previous five seasons before 2020, Kentucky made two Elite Eights, a Sweet 16, a Round-of-32 and a Final Four. To call what’s happened the last three-plus years in Lexington a letdown isn’t an understatement. It’s also three-plus seasons of a letdown.

The Razorbacks’ year hasn’t gone the way the Arkansas basketball faithful have hoped, but five straight SEC wins have rekindled the hope for a legitimate NCAA Tournament run. Besides, consecutive Elite Eights for a school that hadn’t made it that far in 25 years earned a pretty good chunk of good will.

Arkansas Basketball Recruiting

Heck, Arkansas has even overtaken the Wildcats elsewhere. Musselman brought in the No. 2 signing class in the country. Kentucky had the No. 5 group. Consider, too, at least for Tuesday, the jewel of Arkansas’ Class of 2022, Nick Smith Jr., has played in a grand total of five games and didn’t play against the Wildcats, that’s further testament to the gap. Sure, it was just one year out of dozens that Calipari’s recruiting fell short of Musselman’s, although it’s probably better to say Kentucky’s skills fell short of Arkansas’.

Sure, Musselman has been dubbed “the Importer,” but it’s easy to forget what a game-changer the transfer portal has been for his programs. And while fans everywhere bemoan it nearly constantly, they shouldn’t. Not generally.

Take the Arkansas football program, for example. Much was made when those Razorbacks lost more than 20 players to the portal. From a quantity standpoint, Arkansas was burned by bringing fewer than half of that total on National Signing Day.

But anyone who knows the Hogs’ depth chart could tell you that quantity doesn’t come close to telling the true story there. Sam Pittman may have lost a few players from the likely two-deep, but the handful who decided to call Fayetteville home will make a greater impact than most of the 20-something who chose to leave. Not because they’re guaranteed to be better players, but because they are (all but) guaranteed to find themselves with at least some playing time.

Arkansas basketball is there, too. No one in the country recruits like Musselman when it comes to the blend of high-schoolers and the transfer portal. As much as the No. 2 freshmen class has helped the Razorbacks, arguably more effective has been Musselman’s pick-up of the No. 6 class via the transfer portal. Four of the five transfers – Ricky Council IV, the injured Trevon Brazile and the Mitchell twins – have played much better than what was expected of them. Calipari uses plenty of transfers too, but until he learns to navigate these new waters more successfully, the sailing is likely to remain rocky.

Which, if you’re an Arkansas fan, is a good thing. You should want Calipari to stay at Kentucky, and for Kentucky fans to continue to fall short of raising the $40 million needed to buy him off. Same goes for fans of Alabama. Or Tennessee. Or Auburn. Or almost anyone else. Those four schools including Arkansas have reached the level of the Wildcats, if not completely, then at least the last four years. And in this era, that’s really all that matters.

What have you done for me lately, anyway, John?


Arkansas & Kentucky Basketball NCAA Tournament Projections

At this point, almost all NCAA Tournament bracket prediction outlets have Arkansas with a better projected seed than Kentucky. Bracket Matrix projects the Wildcats’ average seed as 10.54, appearing in 101 of the 105 brackets. The average seed for Arkansas, meanwhile, is 8.92.

In terms of matchups, Bracket Wag predicts a revenge game in the first round for a projected No. 10 seed Arkansas by pitting them against a No. 7 seed Duke. But it has Kentucky as a No. 11 seed as a play-in with a group of four that includes Memphis. John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky in 2009 but has not faced the Tigers during his time leading the Wildcats. Indeed, the only time the two programs have played was when Calipari beat his future employer by 17 points in a third-place game at the Maui Invitational in November 2006.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, meanwhile, has Arkansas as a No. 8 seed facing a No. 9 West Virginia in the first round. That set ups a potential showdown with the Hogs’ former SWC foe, No. 1 Houston, in the second round.

Lunarid pairs up a No. 11 Kentucky in the first four round with New Mexico. A win there sets up a potential showdown with Iowa in the next round.


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