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 guilefully 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 yourselves.
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. Thankfully, that type of speed can make up for this team’s many apparent deficiencies such as inexperience, lack of defensive intensity, 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: I don’t know how smart this team is, but they’re all very obedient. Kind of like my dogs. 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: Hopefully this team has more “basketball smarts” than “book smarts.” The team had the worst fall semester grade-point average of all the teams in UK’s athletic department. However, they do appear to be willing to listen and learn. They are fully teachable. Every one of them has the talent to 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. They’re also all very lovable—just like your puppy.
Question: How would you assess your team’s performance to date (after an early season win)?
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 UCLA are doing. 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 would you characterize your relationship with Rick Pitino?
What Cal said: “It’s been fine. We’re 90 miles away from each other and we coach at competitive rival schools. It’s hard to send each other Christmas cards. Come on, you know how good he is. And we’re in the same state 90 miles away from each other trying to carve out our own thing. We’re not mean to each other, not nasty to each other.”
What Cal meant: Rick hates me but I don’t hate the guy like all you media think I do. It’s just that this state ain’t big enough for the both of us so only one of us can be king of the hill. He may be a good coach but since I’ve won 8 out of 10 against him, I get to be the sheriff for now.
Implications: Cal pretty much owns Rick. When the competition is so one-sided, there’s probably not much of a relationship at all. The law of averages eventually catches up with everyone sooner or later. There will be no exchanging of Christmas cards again this year although maybe by letting Rick win a game every decade or so, Cal can convince Rick to be a part of his new podcast.
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: Cal may have been fooled by how good he thought this team was going to be. He wasn’t the only one because after the Arizona State beat down in the Bahamas, everyone thought this team was something special. BBN bought into the hype machine that Cal was promoting. Some may say that he relaxed the reins a bit with this team because he thought they were so good, or perhaps he skipped a couple of his usual steps in the teaching process. Others claim that he’s focusing way too much of his time on promoting his book or finding guests for his podcast instead of teaching his team how to play defense, or rebound, or shoot free throws. Whatever the reason, this Kentucky team needs to improve in many areas if they want to realistically be in the hunt for another national championship. Sure, we’re a young team. But we’re a young team every year and so are a lot of other contenders. Get used to it. It’s also no longer November—time to get it going. The Cats are fast, talented, and teachable. It’s up to Cal now to coach ‘em up.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation publications.