March Madness: Why Aren’t the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2021 NCAA Tournament?

The Kentucky Wildcats have typically had a free ticket to March Madness for as long as John Calipari has coached. With an endless line of NBA talent and a program that’ll do whatever it takes to get them there, Kentucky is right up there with Duke and UNC. This year, however, the team is watching the tournament from outside of the Indianapolis bubble. 

The Kentucky Wildcats’ 2020 season

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John Calipari’s squad was supposed to have a magical season entering last year’s tournament. They had four players from the upcoming draft alone. Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards, Tyrese Maxey, and Ashton Hagans led the way; EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina carried things for the role players. 

According to Sports-Reference, the team started the season with an impressive, albeit unspectacular, 9-3 record by its standards. However, once conference play began, they showed why they are perennial favorites.

Although the team lost vital games to Auburn and Tennessee, they remained favorites for a deep run. Unfortunately for them, that never came. 

The canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament

In early March, when teams typically make a final push toward the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA took the unprecedented step of canceling the tourney altogether. While some coaches fought it, Calipari saw it as a tough but vital measure for the safety of the players, fans, and coaches. The coach told SportsCenter via Jeff Drummond on Twitter:

Hard for the players having it yanked from them like this, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It had to be done … Had a chance to be one of my favorite teams I’ve coached here, but they didn’t get that opportunity. Hard thing to swallow. Players learned sometimes fate intervenes in your life, some of it good, some of it bad. It’s how you deal with it that matters.

Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari

With their four best players gone and a surprisingly unspectacular incoming class, 2021 would always be a down year for the Wildcats squad. However, just how bad they ended up being shocked even the most prominent experts in the world.

The 2021 March Madness debacle

Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats gives instructions to his team
John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats in 2021 | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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Kentucky looked downright awful in the preseason. When conference play began, they showed more fight but ultimately failed there, too. With a 9-16 record on the season, even the SEC-friendly selection committee wasn’t going to let them sneak in.

With conference play ending in disappointment, the Wildcats’ best shot at returning to the big stage was on Selection Sunday. Historically, big schools like Kentucky can get in with mediocre records. But at 9-16 on the year, it was a fantasy. If you ask Calipari, the team was on the verge of something special; had one or two games gone their way, he thinks they’d have had a shot at March Madness. 

“You know what’s sad? We were a couple wins away from being a team, even with a bad record, two or three wins, and you’re right there with all the numbers that they’re saying all these teams in the NCAA Tournament,” the coach said in a quote collected by Kentucky.com.

Now, he’ll have to wait until next year. While Brandon Boston, Terrence Clarke, and the other young prospects could be back, the team’s future will likely depend on its upcoming success in recruiting talent. According to ESPN, the Wildcats joined Duke in having an uncharacteristically bad season. The Wildcats missed the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. 

Calipari always bounces back, however, and fans of the sport know that he will use this off-year to fuel the team for next year. Whether that happens remains to be seen. However, if history tells us one thing, Calipari’s going to go down swinging.