Opinion: John Calipari’s ESPN conspiracy theory says a lot about Kentucky men’s basketball

Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari loves a good conspiracy theory.

With his team floundering at 1-5, off to the program’s worst start to a season since 1927, Calipari is going back to the well for his latest public relations strategy to deflect attention away from his players’ struggles by uniting Big Blue Nation against a common foe.

“They just moved our game from ESPN2 to ESPN,” Calipari said on his radio show Monday. “Why do you think they did that? They’re hoping, here’s (loss) No. 6. We’ve got to ruin ESPN’s weekend. That’s got to be our job. We’ve got to ruin your weekend. We know why you’re putting us on ESPN. You want more people to go to the execution. Well, we ain’t having it.”

There may be no better illustration of the trouble Kentucky finds itself in this season than the coach who has held his program up as the “gold standard" of college basketball finding fault with a broadcast change allowing more fans to watch Saturday’s game against archrival Louisville.

Kentucky coach John Calipari (Photo: Mike Weaver/Special to Courier Journal)

Never mind the logical explanation for the network shift is ESPN’s Dec. 26 schedule was thrown into flux with the cancellation of multiple football bowl games due to a lack of teams willing to play this season.

Still, Calipari came back to his conspiracy theory multiple times during the hour-long radio show.

“We need our fans more than ever before,” Calipari said. “People on (social media) and many trolls and other programs, why would they not jump on this? We beat them all down for 11 years. Now all of the sudden, ‘We’ve got a chance to beat Kentucky, let’s go.’

“ESPN, they played right into it. ‘Let’s move this game, let’s watch the execution with more people watching.’”

Of course, ESPN is the same network Calipari allowed into his inner sanctum for a 2017 “30 for 30” documentary about his rise from UMass to Kentucky. It is the same network Calipari allowed a behind-the-scenes look at Kentucky basketball for an all-access reality show at the beginning of the 2012-13 season.

The 2012 ESPN show, “All-Access Kentucky,” might go down as one of the few missteps in the early years of the Calipari era.

Kentucky had just won the 2012 national championship with a team built around freshmen stars, but the 2012-13 team that was the focus of the show had almost nothing to do with the championship squad. Only one rotation player from the title team was back, and no starters.

With cameras following them in practice and team meetings, it was difficult for the new Kentucky players to not feel as if they’d already earned the respect of college basketball. It made Calipari’s annual quest to teach young players how to sacrifice individual goals for the team all the more difficult.

That Kentucky team struggled almost from the start, losing three of its first six games. When it looked like the ship had been righted in January, a season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel proved too much to overcome. The season spiraled out of control and eventually ended in a first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris.

Which brings us back to Calipari’s latest conspiracy theory. The Hall of Fame coach’s current team appears to rival the 2012-13 squad for dysfunction.

Kentucky has lost five games in a row for the first time since Rick Pitino’s first season on the job in 1989-90. Two days after no player who appeared in the loss to North Carolina could be convinced to answer questions from the media, freshman forward Cam’Ron Fletcher was suspended and sent home to St. Louis so he could “reflect and do some soul searching to get his priorities in order.”

No wonder Calipari wants fans to focus on something other than the way his team is playing.

“You need to help us, you need to be there for these kids,” Calipari said in a message to fans on his radio show. “You’ve got to beat down the trolls for yourself. These kids are playing for our state, they’re playing for this university. They’re inexperienced. They don’t need people piling on them. Pile on me. If you want to blame anybody, pile on me.”

The timing of the annual Louisville rivalry game only adds to the spotlight on Kentucky’s struggles.

As Calipari rightfully pointed out repeatedly during the radio show, there were actually signs of improvement for the Wildcats during the loss to North Carolina and last week’s rally from a 22-point halftime deficit against Notre Dame.

Those glimpses of hope — like freshman guard Devin Askew’s steady progress, the grit of graduate transfer Davion Mintz and the rebounding prowess displayed by UK’s guards against the Tar Heels — offer reason to believe Kentucky’s recent dominance of Louisville can continue.

Calipari has won 11 of his 13 meetings with the Cardinals as Kentucky’s coach. The rivalry tends to bring the best out of his young teams.

But a sixth consecutive loss would sting all the worse at the hands of Kentucky’s biggest rival. Team morale already appears on the brink of collapse, and it is fair to wonder if a team this inexperienced would be capable of bouncing back from the criticism from both its own fans and Louisville supporters if it's embarrassed again.

With both rivals unranked at the time of the game for the first time in Calipari’s Kentucky tenure, the game seems less relevant to the national college basketball landscape than ever. But it is difficult to imagine a rivalry game holding higher stakes for Kentucky.

“Losing stinks,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to start winning some games so they understand the hard work is worth it.”

Email Jon Hale at [email protected]; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ

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