John Calipari is never living down Kentucky’s loss to Oakland in March Madness

The Kentucky Wildcats lived on the edge all season. John Calipari’s team was electric offensively, but seemed to believe defense was optional since the start of the year. Unlike most of Calipari’s best teams, these Wildcats lacked a dominant big man and often got beat up on the boards. When their outside shots were falling, Kentucky looked awesome. But when they were cold, this particular Wildcats team seemed like they could lose to anyone.

Kentucky picked the worst possible time for one of its very worst performances of the season. And now their season is over.

No. 14 seed Oakland beat No. 3 seed Kentucky, 80-76, in the first round of the 2024 men’s NCAA tournament. The Wildcats went from a trendy Final Four pick (guilty) to a one-and-done tournament exit. It would be an unbelievable turn of events if these Wildcats hadn’t been playing with fire all season.

Kentucky only has one NCAA tournament win in the last four years, but this one is going to survive as something even bigger. With the South Region seemingly wide open, it felt like UK got an easy draw to at least the Elite Elite. Now, this feels like the worst loss of the Calipari era in Lexington. It might not be something he can come back from.

A March Madness legend was born for Oakland

No one knew who Jack Gohlke was coming into this game. Now, no Kentucky fan will ever forget him.

Gohlke came off the bench to knock down 10 three-pointers for Oakland on 20 field goal attempts — all from behind the arc. The 6’3 senior was running off screens and splashing threes at an unstoppable rate. Kentucky’s defense simply couldn’t stick with him.

Gohlke only took eight two-point shots all year. Kentucky knew they only had to defend him at the arc, but they still couldn’t do it.

Kentucky’s offense cratered against Oakland’s zone

Calipari had to know Oakland was going to play throw some zone at his team. Instead of preparing them for a unique defense, it felt like the Wildcats players had no idea what they were doing with the ball.

Freshman guards Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham struggled to even get shots up for the first half of the game. Kentucky’s big men provided almost nothing on the inside. If it wasn’t for a heroic effort from Antonio Reeves (27 points on 11-of-18 shooting), the Wildcats may have been blown out.

Kentucky averages about 90 points per game. They fell woefully short of that against Oakland. One team looked prepared to play, and one didn’t.

The lights were too bright for Reed Sheppard

Sheppard wasn’t just arguably Kentucky’s best player as a freshman — he may have been the best freshman in the country. The son of two former Kentucky basketball legends, Sheppard picked the worst possible time to play his worst game of the season.

Sheppard finished with three points on 1-of-5 shooting with two turnovers and three personal fouls. He made so many bad plays down the stretch, including throwing the ball away for a turnover, and fouling a three-point shooter on defense. As he missed a deep three with Kentucky’s season on the line late in regulation, Sheppard’s nightmare game had fully become a reality.

Sheppard was projected as the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick this June by some outlets. We had him in the top-10. It will be fascinating to see if he considers coming back to school now. This is no way to go out.

John Calipari is never living this loss down

Calipari signed a lifetime contract at Kentucky in 2019. He’s only won one tournament game since, and also missed the field of 68 altogether back in 2021.

Calipari lost to No. 15 seed St. Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament only two years ago, but that team never felt as talented as this one. This team had two stud future NBA guards with Sheppard and Dillingham. It had some great veterans like Reeves. It had a clear path to the Final Four with a relatively easy draw through the bracket. Now their postseason run is over before it ever really began.

This feels like the worst loss Calipari has ever endured. It’s the type of L someone doesn’t just bounce back from. It’s always a long offseason after you lose in the NCAA tournament, but this one is going to be particularly painful for coach Cal and Kentucky.

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