Calipari familiar with the ups, downs of young Kentucky squad
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Any parent at Kentucky's postgame press conferences this past weekend at the Hall of Fame Tip-off would have recognized John Calipari's look and tone. His tie loosened, shirt a little wrinkled, eyes a bit puffy, Calipari alternately assessed his team's weaknesses in blunt fashion and then, when questioned further about those issues, used the platform to pump and praise his players. It's OK for me to do the critiquing, his posture said, but not you. Not now. Not yet. They're still kids. My kids.
Calipari is in Year 3 of his grand experiment in Lexington, one that is challenging conventional basketball wisdom on how to build a program and challenge for national titles. Even in this one-and-done era, no one has leaned this heavily, this consistently, on freshmen, no matter how talented. Minting NBA lottery picks by the handful has its perks -- Kentucky can get almost any player it wants as playing time is always available -- but it also means starting virtually from scratch every year. This season, besides Darius Miller (and on the right night, Eloy Vargas), Calipari is the team's only contributing upperclassman.
That means lots of teaching moments, some of which sink in immediately and others that need to be reiterated in various ways. It means dealing with individualism and altruism, with chemistry and conflict. It means that, perhaps more than any other team in the nation, Kentucky is not now what it will be in March. And despite the pedigree of the coach, program and players, we have no clear idea of exactly what Kentucky will be. That's the beauty -- and frustration -- of parenthood.
"Right now, I have to lead and set the standards, tell them what's acceptable and what's not, and hold them to that," Calipari said Saturday, after the Wildcats win over Penn State. "And then eventually they hold each other to that and I can step back. Right now, I'm coaching way too much but I have no choice. I wish I had a veteran team I didn't have to coach so much."
That's not going to happen anytime soon unless the NBA either remains closed into next spring or the new collective bargaining agreement includes a multi-year college commitment. As Calipari was half-joking at the podium Saturday about how he'd love for there to be a three-year rule for NBA eligibility -- saying Kentucky as a program would win multiple championships under those provisions -- sophomore Doron Lamb rolled his eyes in the seat next to him, drawing laughs.
The massive churn, though, means every season basically starts with zero continuity. Learning curves that sometimes take years must happen in months, max. There's no time to fill out frames with muscle. No second chances at an unfamiliar road venue. No time to figure out how to balance basketball, school and socializing. And the Cats must solve all of this while being microanalyzed from day one -- the price of having so much talent, so many rabid fans and so much local and national media to fuel the frenzy.
To combat the challenges of this approach, Calipari has put his faith in aggressive man defense and the dribble-drive motion offense, in which Calipari says he's "teaching his guys how to play rather than run plays." It can be tweaked according to the talent at hand, but nothing is foolproof, especially with young players. Following this past weekend's ODU game, Calipari explained that early in the game, freshman point guard Marquis Teague heard his coach call "Loop," and proceeded to run a transition form of the play call rather than a zone offense version by the same name. Calipari immediately yanked his guard, figured out what the problem was, quickly reinserted Teague into the game, and then blamed himself for the confusion afterward.
Inexperience at the point, though, has been a hallmark of this three-year run. It's also been one of the major flashpoints in Calipari's annual quest for an elusive national title, one that's decided in knockout fashion, meaning one bad game can be fatal. In 2010, the John Wall-led Cats -- a poor perimeter shooting team that season -- panicked in the Elite Eight against West Virginia, jacking up 32 threes and making just four in a defeat. Last season, freshman point Brandon Knight went just 6-23 from the field, getting outplayed by UConn's Kemba Walker (a junior) in a tight Final Four loss.
Teague is going to have to get better if Kentucky wants to win six in a row in March, but he's far from the only one in his class. Anthony Davis' lack of strength could be a situational issue (hello, Festus Ezeli and Patric Young, for starters), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hasn't found a consistent scoring rhythm, and Kyle Wiltjer's old-school hook is often muzzled by the one Calipari gives him when Wiltjer stops defending and rebounding to the coach's satisfaction.
Relatively speaking, Kentucky does have some quality veterans to help this season, thanks in large part to Terrence Jones passing up a lockout-threatened NBA season to return for his sophomore year. Throw in the sweet-shooting Lamb and the calming senior influence of Darius Miller, and Calipari at least has three guys who have gone through this with him once (or twice, in Miller's case).
That touch of experience is crucial, especially in early-season games. On Saturday, Lamb outscored Penn State by himself for the first 24 minutes of the game, finishing with a game-high 26 points. On Sunday, all of the Wildcats' early-season flaws were there for the viewing. Old Dominion's older, stronger, more physical players banged the young Cats around and the Monarchs' 3-2 zone defense proved confounding for large portions of the game. Miller was the only Cat who looked comfortable finding seams in the Old Dominion zone, and Calipari said afterward his team would have lost by 10 or 12 had Miller not played.
ODU coach Blaine Taylor noted that the zone "didn't let [the Wildcats] have their way, or get immediate gratification like they're used to" -- a telling quote that underscores the impetuousness of youth, but he, like Calipari, expects Kentucky's November experience to yield dividends later in the season.
"They'll be more experienced at different tactics [down the road]," Taylor said. "Players will bounce back from poor play and disappointment. They'll pay attention to what Cal says differently. When you're winning by 50, you can put cotton in your ears sometimes."
It would have required more than cotton for Teague not to hear Calipari repeatedly screaming "Run the team! Think about the team!" at him at one point during the freshman's poor first half against ODU, but that's exactly the point.
The Cats also have the selective memory that defines their age group. Seated in front of his locker after the win over Penn State, Jones was asked whether this season's approach is different at all from this point last year. He chuckled a little and said, "I really don't remember."
For the Wildcats, wiping the slate clean each year is becoming a rite of passage, but how Jones and Co. will be remembered beyond next March will be rooted in the lessons of weekends like this one. Will these Cats fulfill their promise before this all starts over again next fall? Calipari will keep coaching them, but at some point, he'll have let them go and see how they've grown up.