Sidelines with John Clay

John Calipari’s critics get more fuel from USA U19 loss to Canada

R.J. Barrett (6) celebrates after scoring 38 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to lead Canada over the United States in the U19 Fiba World Cup on Saturday.
R.J. Barrett (6) celebrates after scoring 38 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to lead Canada over the United States in the U19 Fiba World Cup on Saturday. USA Basketball

Never mind the 2012 national title, the six Final Four appearances involving three schools, the bravo job lifting UMass from a nobody to a No. 1 ranking or that John Calipari is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The USA U19 team’s loss Saturday to Canada in the FIBA World Cup gave Calipari’s critics another argument that the Kentucky coach can recruit but just can’t coach.

Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports pushed back against the narrative, writing, “The knee-jerk reaction to USA Basketball’s stunning failure to win gold at the U-19 World Cup is to blame its head coach for once again squandering superior talent.

“In reality, Saturday’s 99-87 semifinal loss to Canada isn’t as embarrassing for Calipari as it may seem, nor is it fair to saddle him with the reputation for doing less with more.

“The Americans undeniably boasted the strongest roster of the 16 nations who participated in this year’s tournament, but there’s a reason the U-19 World Cup is traditionally the toughest FIBA championship for USA Basketball to win. The talent gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is more narrow at this age group than at any other level.”

As Eisenberg points out, the U.S. won just one U-19 title of the six tournaments played from 1995 to 2011. The 2011 team, coached by Paul Hewitt, lost to Russia in the quarterfinals.

The Billy Donovan-coached USA U19 team won the title in 2013. Donovan was to coach the 2015 team but stepped down after accepting the job with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Arizona coach Sean Miller took over to lead the 2015 team to the crown.

Calipari’s 2017 team breezed through group play but struggled with Germany before pulling away for the quarterfinal victory. Then Saturday, the team succumbed to R.J. Barrett, the Canadian guard who plays at Montverde Academy in Florida and is considered the top college prospect for 2019. Barrett scored 38 points in a performance that might have reminded UK fans of Elston Turner’s 40 points in Texas A&M’s win over the Cats in 2013.

Calipari had to know that accepting the coaching job would bring criticism if the U19 team failed to win a third straight title. But Cal had to think that it was an honor to coach the team and that it would help in recruiting top prospects playing on the team -- Romeo Langford, Cameron Reddish, Immanuel Quickley -- and the ones UK has already signed, including Hamidou Diallo and PJ Washington.

There is no denying Calipari’s recruiting. Since coming to UK, his classes have ranked No. 1 or No. 2 by every recruiting service. A total of 24 of his Kentucky players have been taken in the first round by the NBA. Twelve of those were top-10 picks. Three were overall No. 1 draft picks. He had three lottery picks in the 2017 draft.

His 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 teams reached the Final Four. His 2012 and 2014 teams reached the national title game. The 2012 team, with Anthony Davis, earned UK’s eighth national title banner.

On the other hand, after his 2015 team (38-0) lost in the Final Four to Wisconsin, his 2016 team was bounced in the second round by Indiana, and last year’s team lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, the USA U19 semifinal loss only gives the Calipari critics, the ones who question his coaching ability, more ammunition.

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