Kentucky coach John Calipari says he'll use more depth in the coming basketball season.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The scene is always the same. After every University of Kentucky basketball home game, the coach walks across the Rupp Arena court, puts on his headset and starts talking with Tom Leach on his postgame radio show. Several thousand watch from the stands.
Before he begins, during breaks, and sometimes during the show itself, fans will toss John Calipari basketballs, and he will sign them. One by one, as if in an efficient practice drill he's run hundreds of times, he'll point to someone holding up a ball and it will shoot into the air, down into the coach's hands, where he'll sign it, then flip it back, crisply, before motioning for the next one.
Talk, toss, sign. It's as appropriate an image as any for Calipari as he enters his fifth season in Lexington. Probably no other coach has been as adept at keeping all the balls in the air at Kentucky. No one, not even Adolph Rupp himself, established as effective a back-and-forth with the Big Blue fan base. The fan base held Rupp more closely, because he felt more like one of them. But no one has commanded the masses like Calipari, mainly because no one has had the means to command them, but also because Calipari, a college marketing major, revels in the role.
It's easy to get lost in the juggling act. It's easy to be sidetracked by the Calipari talking points. He knows before he speaks which of his statements will make headlines the next day. But the ones that do aren't always the most substantive ones.
He ended an unusually long media silence last week and burst forth with 40 minutes of homily, talking about everything from his upcoming team to the state of the NBA and the problems its age limit creates for colleges.
Buried somewhere beneath the soapbox and the satirical, "I've had the gun to my head for 20-something years" hyperbole, is the real substance.
The word "galvanizing" was the word of choice in Calipari's talk with the media. He used it four times. Now, galvanizing metal is dipping it in zinc or some other coating to protect it. And in its original meaning, galvanizing is to spark something to action (as with electricity). But what Calipari seems to be talking about, from his context, is both the protective meaning and something more, the process of bringing his team together, of developing chemistry and asking for shared sacrifice.
This picks up on a theme with which he finished the 2012-13 season. After the season ended with a loss at Robert Morris in the NIT, Calipari's postgame interview was defiant. He said some things were going to change. He hinted that personnel changes were coming (they were) and he vowed that he'd never be short-handed again (he isn't).
Whatever Calipari says, the most fascinating thing about the coach this season will be how he changes to meet the unique demands of what he's trying to do in Kentucky.
"The biggest lesson you have is you've got to have competition, we've got to have more players, you can't do it and then you get hijacked by a player or two," Calipari told Leach after the Robert Morris loss. "You get hijacked, because you think you have to play them and you don't have a choice, and then you accept what they want to give you, surrender, and now the program is -- you can't do it. That'll never happen here. We're always going to have a full complement of players. Next year we may have as many as three teams, 15 guys. . . . It was a great lesson. Our team wasn't that skilled, that was an issue. We didn't work hard enough, and weren't disciplined enough, and mainly because guys were playing too many minutes who shouldn't have been playing."
At UK, Calipari has generally settled on seven guys and let them gather most of the minutes. He called it "protecting" his elite-level players.
But he doesn't have to coach that way, and he hasn't always coached that way in the past. In fact, if you go back through the past six years of NCAA finalists, of the past dozen teams to play in the title game, only one had a bench that played a higher percentage of the team's total minutes than the 32.4 percent played by Calipari's 2008 Memphis team. (That was Michigan State, with 36.4 percent of its minutes off the bench in 2009. Louisville's 2013 national champions got 31.3 percent of the total minutes played off the bench.)
So Calipari has juggled. He can play nine deep. He's done it before, all the way to the NCAA championship game. He just hasn't juggled this caliber of player in the numbers he expects to have. Perhaps nobody in the college game has.
But if it's one thing Calipari has done well in Lexington, it has been adjust. He adjusts to his talent. He adjusts to his personalities. If the dribble-drive doesn't suit his team, he rolls with it, posts up DeMarcus Cousins and goes to a more traditional offense. He makes sound decisions between the lines, always has.
Now, he has looked at his deficiencies from a year ago and appears to have addressed them all. He has more returning players (thanks in part to circumstance, but also thanks in part to not prodding quite so hard in the NBA's direction in a couple of cases). He has addressed the issue of numbers. He should have depth and competition, plus a bit of insurance in the case of injury.
If you'll remember back to last season, Calipari used everything from dodge ball to the kitchen sink to try to bring his team together. The motivational ploys are only as good as the players will allow them to be. Still, there's no question, Calipari is determined, has addressed the shortfalls and says he's ready to address one more thing -- style. He wants his team to brace for more physical play. With more numbers and less concern for foul trouble, he says he'll extend pressure all over the court. These are all new wrinkles, to some degree, to go with a slew of talented new players.
"Will we play different? Absolutely," Calipari said. "We'll press more. We'll foul more. Because that's the way the game is going. Now they're saying all this stuff about the charge-block and, 'We're not going to let the fouling go.' Do you really believe that? You watch the games. The more you foul, the more you shoot free throws. I don't understand how that works. So we're going to press and play more physical and bump and grind, and we'll put our arms up in the air and hip-check guys. That's how we're going to play. . . . Now we have numbers. We'll play more toward our team, how this team needs to play."
Calipari said he'll take his staff on a two-day retreat today and tomorrow to talk about each player and what each one needs from the staff. He said the team is "chasing perfection" and said it would be trying to make history. He also acknowledges the difficulty in what he's doing. Even the Miami Heat didn't win in Year No. 1 with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Calipari's next UK team features a collection of recruits that is being described as historic, plus quality returnees with experience. Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed UK as a 4-1 choice to win the national title.
"As we move forward, what we're about to undertake has never been done before," Calipari said. "Trying to put teams together like this, where you're talking a big number of players, whether it be the Lakers, the Miami Heat, it takes time. There's a learning curve. There's a galvanizing process that we have to go through. And you know what, we're going to have to be patient."
It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, but Calipari is used to it.