CRAWFORD | Time is on Calipari's side with this Kentucky team
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I'm no weatherman, but I can tell you this: The sky might start to fall faster in the state of Kentucky than anywhere else in the world.
At least, that's the case where basketball is concerned.
You can go from 40-0 to NIT in a fortnight.
Mere moments after the University of Kentucky basketball team lost to Baylor in the wee hours of the morning in Dallas, folks around here were starting to question whether the Wildcats really have what it takes to win a national championship.
I've got your answer right here -- they don't. At least, not in December.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they don't play the NCAA Tournament in December.
Frankly, and maybe this is a minority opinion, I think getting beat right now is the best thing that can happen to this young UK team. It's the only way for them to learn with any kind of urgency. And to break the seal on a new team and expect to find a national champion by season's end, you have to have urgency.
The only way losses become negatives is if the players then allow the negativity around them to seep into the locker room. If the praise and adulation is greater for UK than it is other places -- and it is -- then the criticism is, too.
It's easy to forget the 2011 season, when UK struggled through the regular season, trying to figure out roles and how to play. They were rewarded with what many thought was the toughest road to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament. And they responded by beating Ohio State and North Carolina to reach the Final Four.
Now, this team is far more talented than that. And it is in far better position to improve and advance than last season's team, particularly after it lost Nerlens Noel.
Even John Calipari, who has been around this block several times, is going to take time to figure out how to best put his pieces together.
He said as much when questioned over why he subbed so little in the loss to Baylor.
"You just get in a game, the heat of a game, and you forget," Calipari said. "There are times I forget guys are on the bench and I look down and I go, ‘What are you doing, get in.' So it happens. Sometimes it's the flow of the game and you're just trying to get out of the game, which is what happened there too. We get up, we are ready to blow them out, I didn't want to make changes, and I wanted to keep going. Like I told them after, we didn't play enough people. So we are going forward with the idea that, look, some of you guys have to play. We are going to buy time and hopefully you are going to play well and you deserve to play well because of how you practice and you deserve more minutes and we'll go from there."
Especially under Calipari, UK has become accustomed to winning nearly all of its games. That's a rarity. The goal is to keep improving, and if you don't improve on a given night, at least learn from it.
Calipari, I've always thought, shared more in common with Denny Crum than most people realize, and probably more than people involved in either program would care to admit. Namely, Crum never got the credit for being a great bench coach while he was winning. Later in his career, after he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, he began to get more recognition. But Crum won two national titles and went to numerous Final Fours in the first half of his career without ever winning a national coach of the year award. People said he was a great recruiter, but because U of L was on the forefront of pressing and running up-tempo offense, he was accused of just "letting them play."
Sometimes Calipari gets criticism in a similar vein. Great recruiter, not a great coach. Whatever. Crum never really sweated losses in December. He played a tough schedule, and used it later on to try to make his team peak in February and March. He could've won 100 more games in his career by scheduling easier -- maybe more. He didn't think that did his teams any good.
Calipari has borrowed a page from Crum's book. He is in the midst of a difficult stretch of schedule. His team is going to win some, and might lose some. But in the end, it doesn't matter, if it's the end result that counts the most.
Basketball isn't football. The notion of going 40-0 might sell a few T-shirts, but it is not required. Process, not perfection, is what matters.
"We knew it was going to be hard," Calipari said. "We knew we would lose games. We knew. You may have had people thinking we're going to win all those games and win every game and all that. That's not what I was thinking. I knew coming to this point they were going to have to find each other or we're not going to be as good as everybody thinks or I think we should be. Until they find each other, until they understand they are absolutely locked arm and arm with each other.
"Yesterday, I taught them how to huddle at the free throw line. They didn't know how to huddle at the free throw line. How could you not know how to huddle? Because they never played that way. If we got fouled, I was thinking my thoughts and he was thinking his thoughts and he's thinking his thoughts. This is all new. We did some other stuff, it's like, come on now. Just teaching them how to be a good teammate and what you do.
"How about this, a guy comes out of the game, everybody gets up and touches the guy, isn't that like we all played? You touch the guy, ‘hey, you're good.' We sit, ‘come here, touch me.' Just things to become a good team they don't know yet, some of it I expected and any time I expect them to know something, I'm wrong. I'm wrong. Well they know this, I am wrong. And that being said, we don't rebound, we can't make a free throw and we still should have won the game. Top-20 team on the road, the women had nine overtimes, we came out, we're back in, came out, come back in. If we ever do a double-header (with the women) they will play after us, I don't care if it's 11 at night, you will never play before us again. Basically still start the game sluggish, they make seven-of-eight. Still should have won the game. We're fine. I haven't lost any confidence in the team, I have a lot of work to do as a coach and they have a lot of work to do changing and buying in, we're not near what we need to be."
Boise State comes into tonight's 9 p.m. game in Rupp Arena with an 8-0 record. It's a good offensive team. They're experienced. UK should win, but if the game begins with Boise jumping on top, there will be a "here we go again" feel in Rupp. Just like there was an "oh no this has the feel of last season" after the loss to Baylor.
This isn't last season. There are some long-term questions about this team; namely, is the guard play good enough to win a championship? But that has been the question from the outset, and it's an issue Calipari will be having to address all season. Who plays? Who is able to apply the most ball pressure? Do these guys have the team-first mentality to play the kind of help defense they need?
And those things -- mentality, guard play, chemistry -- are things that develop. They aren't created quickly.
When Anthony Davis blocked shots, it was rarely the guy he was guarding whose shot he blocked. Davis usually flew out of nowhere to block the shot of a player being guarded by someone else. He was a defensive finisher. But more than that, his main motivating force was to be a good teammate. To help. That's the mentality that has to take over. And it takes a while, with most players.
Sometimes, in fact, it takes a few losses.
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