Calipari’s Risky Move with Oakland Could Play Right Into Kentucky’s Hands

Mark Pope, John Calipari, Greg Kampe, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball, Oakland basketball
photo credit: Kentucky Athletics / Kentucky Athletics / Daniel Mears/Detroit News

Arkansas hates Kentucky. 

Arkansas basketball wants to be like Kentucky basketball. 

Step one to that end in a new era was the hiring of John Calipari away from the Wildcats. One of the grandest ironies of the hire, of course, being Hogs’ fans suddenly appreciating Calipari instead of heckling him, instead of calling him a cheater. It’s only human nature to appreciate things once you see them from a personal perspective, of course, though empathy rarely extends to others for long.

In other words, Arkansas will continue to hate Kentucky, regardless of whether Calipari is in-tow or not. And the Hogs faithful who teased the fire out of the Wildcats in March when UK fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Oakland are now, I’m sure, not going to be scared whatsoever when the Razorbacks host the Grizzlies less than a year later.

Because then it was “CALIPARI IS OVERRATED!” Now, it’s “We have Calipari and a real team, so no problem.”

A Reported Rematch for John Calipari

If you haven’t heard, Arkansas and Oakland reportedly came to an agreement to play each other in the 2024-25 season in Fayetteville. It’s unclear whether Calipari and his crew initiated contact or if Oakland reached out. The difference is ultimately unimportant, but it does provide some insight into one party or the other’s thinking.

Consider, Calipari is ever the showman. Not in a flashy, in-your-face way. But his working-class-stiff persona, although very real, is played to the hilt (side note: can Arkansas’ PR department keep up with him? Good start after the Benton County tornadoes, anyway). 

It would shock no one if he and his party reached out to Oakland. It’d be less about revenge since Kentucky-slayer Jack Gohlke and some of the other AARP card-carrying members of that particular squad are out of eligibility. Calipari is too wise for revenge, a young man’s endeavor – but more about how the game would play. The public loves drama and the story angle of Oakland vs. Calipari in his new digs should get big play. And considering that the current king of college basketball may soon be heading to the Lakers, the spotlight for such a game is even more available for the taking.

Oakland is probably an easy sell, too. It has its most national recognition in the wake of that March Madness upset since Keith Benson was swatting shots in the early 2010s. It’s the type of recognition that can’t be bought. Well…actually. It can be bought. Arkansas is certainly paying the suburban Detroit school a pretty penny to make a trip down to the Natural State. Such is commonplace

What isn’t commonplace is the embarrassment that would ensue if Arkansas loses to Oakland. The Kentucky basketball fans who so passionately rubbed Mark Pope’s introductory press conference into the face of Arkansas fans would have a field day seeing their polarizing former coach go down like that. It’s a chance to hold one over on the program that essentially took half their projected roster for next season before the two teams actually square off in Rupp Arena for their sole matchup in 2024-25.

Of course, Arkansas will be favored to beat Oakland. Ask the fans right now and they’ll all say, “Yes, it’s going to happen. The talent and home court advantages will simply be too much.” Confidence may be at an all-time-high for a program that finished a game below .500 the season before. Some of that comes from your typical wearing of rose-colored glasses, but some of it is fueled by select too-early preseason polls like this one:

Broader Picture for Arkansas Basketball

Even before the transfer portal, the two biggest men’s sports at the collegiate level were becoming more balanced. NIL changes things a bit (although it’s still far too soon to know how significantly) because teams that can raise money from big businesses and yokels can then turn that money directly over to players. Bigger coffers equal better chances. It’s a bit like how owners of professional sports franchises convince citizens of a city to be taxed to build a new stadium or arena: “Imagine how much fun you’ll have and how cool it will be! But don’t think about all the money we can charge you for admission *after* the taxes!”

Just where Arkansas stands with NIL money in hoops right now is unknown, but it’s widely presumed to be near the top of the heap. John Tyson, the man who brokered the deal between U of A and his friend Calipari, hasn’t yet written a big, ol’ honkin’ check to help take care of players. Yet. Calipari and athletic director Hunter Yurachek said upon Calipari’s hiring that such conversations were taking and would take place, though. And if that anticipated NIL gravy train does arrive, regardless of its sources, Arkansas is going to be all that much better off.

They’re fine now. With the roster Calipari has put together, Arkansas will almost certainly be ranked a top-15 team and may enter the season as a top-10 team in more polls. A quick glance through the current early polls show Arkansas often appearing in the Top 20 well ahead of Kentucky basketball, which is left out in Gary Parrish’s recent iteration. Whether all that talent gels is another story, but it’s hard to imagine the Razorbacks going through another season like last, when they had mega talent coming in from the portal but the players never really quite figured themselves, each other or their coach out. 

John Calipari won’t have the same problems with familiarity. More than half the Arkansas roster right now is made up of players Calipari has a pre-existing relationship with, even if they are new to Fayetteville.

Arkansas, the state and fans, is going to have to get used to that ‘new to Fayetteville’ thing, too. The days of players sticking around three and four years at a high-major school like Arkansas are mostly finished even if it’s hard to say Trevon Brazile would have returned to Arkansas empty-handed. 

In his case, the NIL and the ever-nearing reality of players becoming employees can likely be thanked for keeping Brazile around an extra year. Regardless of whether the “one and done” prospects are coming from high school or out of the transfer portal, John Calipari is poised to tweak the same winning formula he used at Kentucky and Memphis to return Arkansas to the Final Four. 

His roster so far, with only three true freshmen, shows he has taken the lesson of losing to Oakland to heart. The motivation to regain some pride there should serve as ammunition along with wanting to show others he can successfully adapt to signing older, more experienced players instead of relying so heavily on freshmen.

No doubt, Calipari is ready to beat Oakland this time around. It just so happens that would provide Arkansas with its own ammo against the Wildcats, too.

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