After the win over Cleveland State, John Calipari added another impressive item on to his coaching resume. His 123rd win against only 4 losses makes the Hall of Fame UK basketball coach the winningest coach in Rupp Arena history. Since arriving in Lexington in 2010, Coach Cal has also had success away from the friendly confines of the house that Rupp built, leading the Wildcats to four Final Fours and the coveted 2012 National Championship. Throughout his tenure, he’s had an interesting relationship with the media, frequently utilizing the local press to guile-fully address the loyal subjects of the Big Blue Nation with his own personal platforms and agendas.
If you ask Cal a direct question, you probably won’t get a direct answer. Query him about the practice habits of a current UK player, he’ll shift the conversation over to the NBA. Question him about the team’s defensive proficiency, he’ll want to talk about his new book. Ask him to compare this team to others, he’ll wax poetic about “pooping ice cream” or “peeing down your leg.” In other words, don’t bother thinking about getting your question answered, but rather just be prepared to soak in what he has to say and get ready to decipher it afterwards.
Having said that, I wish all of BBN had some sort of “Cal-Speak” phone app to translate what Coach is really saying. Let’s design a device that takes the words directly from his mouth, filters them through an analysis algorithm and comes up with what he really means. We’ll then be able to truthfully dissect all the pertinent implications for this Kentucky team. You ready? Here we go.
Question: Is this your fastest team yet? What Cal said: “I think John (Wall) and Eric (Bledsoe) and those guys would argue the point that they were faster.” What Cal meant: I don’t want to make John Wall mad and I don’t want the guys on this team to get a big head so I’m going to say the other team was faster. But in my mind, this team is the fastest. Are you blind? You have two eyes—see for yourself. Implications: This team is fast—certainly his fastest at all five positions combined. It’s not just vertical speed down the court, it’s also lateral quickness. That type of speed, especially on the defensive end will make up for many potential deficiencies such as inexperience and inconsistent outside shooting.
Question: Is this team picking up what you’re saying pretty quickly? What Cal Said: “Yes, when you’re coaching 17, 18 and 19-year-olds, they just need constant affirmation. You have to correct immediately—you can’t wait to let them know you can’t do that. But you also have to affirm immediately. I’ll stop them to let them know they’re doing something good. If I want to stop them from doing something bad, I may have to raise my tone.” What Cal meant: This team may be pretty smart but more importantly, they’re all very obedient. Kind of like my dog. If my puppy does something good, I affirm immediately. If he does something naughty, I have to say “bad doggy” right away. It’s exactly the same with these five star players—except they’re not as furry. Implications: This team not only has “basketball smarts” but is also willing to listen and learn. They are fully teachable. Every one of them can run and pass and shoot and play defense and all of them want to please Cal. That bodes well for not only rapid marked improvement on the court but less stress for the entire coaching staff and for impatient fans.
Question: How would you assess your team’s performance to date? What Cal said: “I told them after the game, we’re a November team. I don’t want my team in November to look like it’s January or February. We’re a ways away from where we need to be.” What Cal meant: We’re not going to peak in November like Louisville or Kansas usually do. In November, we’re still learning how to play together as a team. I get to experiment with lineups in November. Trust me—you ain’t seen nothing yet! We’ll be much better in January and February. I promise you won’t see Brad in the games come March. Implications: It’s a long season. Even Cal’s 38-1 team probably peaked a bit early defensively. Once the SEC schedule rolled around, teams kind of figured them out. It’ll be much more difficult for opponents to figure this team out. They are so young and talented that their ceiling is higher than all the other contenders (although Duke is a close second). If this is how they look in November and they can continue to incrementally improve, they’ll be a juggernaut by March. Never judge Cal’s teams by what they look like in November.
Question: How realistic is it for the players to establish ownership of this team? What Cal said: “It’s not realistic right now. Especially when you’re playing five freshmen. And of the five freshmen, four of them are getting a lot of minutes. Then the sophomore you’re playing is 18 (years old).” What Cal Meant: It may never be realistic. Do you realize how hard it is for me to do what I do? They don’t pay me a zillion bucks just for rolling the ball out. Last year at this time, all these guys were playing high school basketball. You can’t expect them to all be coaches on the floor. You’re not going to have a special leader like Tyler Ulis every year. Implications: As long as Cal is the UK coach, Kentucky will be forever young. His focus on one-and-done players necessitates youth and inexperience at every position. He’s being paid big bucks to coach them up. If players like Isaiah Briscoe develop into outright floor leaders, then that’s an added bonus. Ultimately, it’s up to Cal to be owner and CEO. In Cal we trust!
Question: You like your team? What Cal said: “I love this team!” What Cal meant: This team is the best I’ve had. They’re talented, coachable—a group of high character individuals. They are championship caliber. What’s not to love? Implications: This team is something special and Cal knows it. There’s a twinkle in his eye. De’Aaron Fox is a triple-double machine, Malik Monk is superhuman, Isaiah Briscoe is a match-up nightmare and Bam Adebayo is the reincarnation of Wes Unseld. Even Dan Dakich, the former IU player and coach turned ESPN announcer, was fawning all over the UK players with effusive praise in their blowout victory over Arizona State. If the start to this season is any indication, BBN is in for a real treat the rest of the year. Buckle your seat belt and enjoy the ride.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.
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