Why John Calipari has instructed Kentucky basketball to skip postgame handshake lines

LEXINGTON – The speculation as understandable, if misplaced.

The sight of John Calipari instructing the Kentucky basketball players on the bench to leave the Bud Walton Arena court to go to the locker room before Saturday’s game was finished was certainly unusual. As UK assistants scrambled to pull the five players still in the game toward the locker room as soon as the final buzzer had sounded in the 75-73 loss, CBS broadcasters wondered aloud if Kentucky was avoiding the handshake line in reaction to the much-talked-about postgame fight between Michigan and Wisconsin earlier this month.

But Kentucky has been skipping the handshake line for weeks now, a move made before Michigan coach Juwan Howard was suspended five games for hitting a Wisconsin assistant. Calipari has also pulled as many of his players from the court as possible before a road loss ended in the past to avoid them being caught up in fans storming the court.

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Feb 26, 2022; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Kentucky Wildcats players leave the court in the prior to the end of the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas won 75-73. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2022; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Kentucky Wildcats players leave the court in the prior to the end of the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas won 75-73. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Calipari’s justification for skipping the handshake line has been COVID-19 concern, not possible altercations with the opposing team.

“I'm looking around the country, and many coaches are just doing what they do in the NBA, which I did,” Calipari said when asked why he did not shake hands with Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse after Kentucky Feb. 2 win over the Commodores. “I acknowledged him. But I got worried after the last game.”

The last game Calipari referred to was Kentucky’s Jan. 29 win at Kansas. The Wildcats shook hands with Bill Self and his team after the game. Two days later, Kansas announced star Ochai Agbaji had been placed in COVID-19 health and safety protocols and would miss the Jayhawks’ next game at Iowa State.

“Basically, he played with COVID,” Calipari said of Agbaji, who hit just 4 of 14 shots in 36 minutes against Kentucky. “And now I'm saying, I'm not sure we should shake hands.”

During his post-Vanderbilt news conference, Calipari suggested the policy would be reevaluated in two weeks, but he has kept the new tradition throughout February.

UK’s coaches and players wave to the opposing bench in acknowledgement after the game before heading to the locker room. The plan is known ahead of time. Calipari said he got the idea from watching South Carolina coach Frank Martin and Mississippi State coach Ben Howland make the same exchange of waves after their Feb. 1 game, the night before UK first skipped the handshake line against Vanderbilt.

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While it might be fair to wonder if the handshake line brings much added risk of spreading COVID after 40 minutes of the type of close-quarters contact required by playing basketball, it does at least limit additional contact points between coaches and players. Kentucky has also conducted all news conferences via Zoom since the omicron variant led COVID-19 cases to soar in late December.

The prohibition on postgame handshake lines has not prevented long lines forming for fans to get player autographs after games at Rupp Arena.

COVID-19 concerns may have played a part in Calipari sending his reserves to the locker room before the Arkansas game ended in case of a court storming, but safety concerns about those situations predates the pandemic.

Kentucky guard Darius Miller was famously caught on the ground when Indiana fans rushed the court after their win over No. 1 Kentucky in Dec. 2011. The Wildcats have faced numerous court-storming situations after road losses since then, including at Notre Dame earlier this season.

Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek took to Twitter before the game to urge Arkansas fans to stay in their seats if the Razorbacks beat Kentucky. Arkansas was fined $250,000 by the Southeastern Conference for fans storming the court after a win over No. 1 Auburn earlier this season.

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Arkansas players asked after the game about Kentucky leaving the court before the final buzzer said they were not offended.

"I didn’t even think about the safety issue," senior guard Stanley Umude said. "It kind of makes sense now."

As for the Michigan-Wisconsin fight, that altercation did not appear to play into Calipari’s decision to abandon the handshake line.

Asked about the fight on his radio show Monday, Calipari pointed to another incident in the postgame handshake line between Oral Roberts and North Dakota State earlier this month before saying he has not thought much about the implications of the fights.

“We’re supposed to be the adults in the room,” Calipari said. “…I started what I was doing based on COVID, and I kind of like it. Give the duces. (The fight) is not why I did it, but it ends up looking like, wow, maybe everybody should do it.”

How to watch Kentucky basketball vs. Ole Miss

Game time: 7 p.m. (Rupp Arena; Lexington)

Television: ESPN

Radio: 840 AM

Streaming: WatchESPN

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky basketball: Why UK players did not shake hands with Arkansas