The Kentucky Wildcats may have pulled off a win over Tennessee basketball even in a down year, but the season as a whole proved once again that Rick Barnes is a far superior coach to John Calipari. UK losing to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Thursday’s SEC Tournament matchup further solidified that fact.
With the loss, Kentucky finished the year 9-16, its first losing season since Rick Pitino’s first year in Lexington, Ky. back in 1988-1989. In a general sense, coaches relying heavily on freshman talent this year, which Calipari does every year, have an excuse. So many COVID interruptions limited their ability to develop their freshmen the way they usually do.
Still, even with that issue and with injuries to three starters at different times this year, Tennessee basketball was able to earn a top four seed in the SEC Tournament under Barnes. The Vols will take the court Friday with two freshmen and two sophomores in their main rotation, and they have a 17-7 record with those guys.
Barnes got all this offseason hype for having a top 10 class, and the results with that class have been somewhat disappointing, but Calipari, once again had a No. 1 class. His team shouldn’t have had eight fewer wins.
You could make the case for barely staying above .500 this year when relying heavily on freshmen, similar to what the Duke Blue Devils have done. Even more experienced elite programs, like the Michigan State Spartans, struggled. The North Carolina Tar Heels got on a roll late but also had an up and down year.
Being this significantly worse, though, is inexcusable for Kentucky. Calipari defenders will point out that two of Barnes’ key players, John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, are seniors. However, two of Kentucky’s three players to average double figures, Davion Mintz and Oliver Starr, are seniors as well, so that excuse goes out the window.
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This isn’t to say the Vols have lived up to their expectations either with Barnes. Again, COVID issues slowing down teams with young stars is understandable. The way it slowed down Kentucky, though, is indicative of how much better of a coach in general Barnes is.
This disparity in coaching is why, with Barnes at the helm, Tennessee basketball has a winning record against Kentucky. That comes despite the Vols only reaching the NCAA Tournament twice in Barnes’ first five years.
Sure, Calipari has a national championship, something Barnes is still chasing. All of his years of securing No. 1 recruiting classes and elite NBA Draft picks at least amounted to one of those. Kentucky still managed to get a win against UT this year as well. By and large, though, Barnes has been better at coaching his guys up.
We should also note that Tennessee basketball isn’t going anywhere with Barnes at the helm on the recruiting front. That elite season with a bunch of three-stars a couple of years ago began a domino effect. It started with Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson this past year, but Kennedy Chandler is coming in next year.
If Barnes is able to continue mixing in elite freshman talent with players he knows how to develop, Calipari stands no chance. He has solely relied on recruiting more elite talent, and that edge will go out the window. Given what happened this year, Kentucky could be in trouble if Calipari doesn’t improve his coaching.