LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- All of this anguish for the University of Kentucky basketball team, and it turns out coach John Calipari just needed to tap on the starter. Or change the plugs. Or replace the timing belt.
Here's what you have to appreciate about Calipari. It's never boring. There's always something stirring. About the only thing I was looking forward to in Atlanta for this week's SEC Tournament was a visit to Mary Mac's Tea Room. (The last time I went there, I went to the doctor a few days later and they said they found some blood in my cholesterol.) But now, we have a tweak to talk about.
Tweak. Not Tweet. Listen. This could be important. Calipari mentioned it on his IMG Sports radio show with Tom Leach last night. He did not get into specifics. He will not leak the tweak. No peeking while he's tweaking. But he says he has done something with the offense, and folks, it's humming like a Corvette. Pre-sinkhole.
And now that Calipari has mentioned it, as a member of the media, my job is to overanalyze this tweak to its logical and even ridiculous end. What could Calipari have done? Are there any clues? Let's go to the audio tape.
"It was just like, bang, wait a minute," Calipari said.
Crap. He shot somebody. Everybody check on your cheering buddy. I would've bet on strangling, but there you go. (All right, I'm kidding. Calipari would never, for the record, do such a thing. I mean, he's not Bob Knight. Also for the record, there were NO shots heard from the UK practice facility yesterday. And even if there had been, they probably wouldn't have hit anything.)
Back to Cal: "We tweaked the offense a little bit, and it was a small tweak, something that I should have done a month ago, and the energy in our building, I'm jacked. Like, I am ready for us now to take the next step. I'm not really going to tell you what it is or what I did, but the players left like bouncy and talking, and it was something I should have known better to do, and I apologized to the team. I've done this twenty some years, what in the world was I thinking? It just changed everything."
I don't know what he did. But I've often praised Calipari for this very type of thing -- for seeing the easy and common-sense solution to a problem and implementing it. In 2010, he had this dribble-drive offense that the whole world was talking about when he arrived at UK fresh off a trip to the championship game with Memphis, then he looked at his team and saw one DeMarcus Cousins, and decided that instead of dribble-drive, he would just pass and get out of the way. So down the ball went to Cousins, from the wings, from Patrick Patterson in the high post. Simple things. Effective results.
What might it be now? I don't know what Calipari tweaked, but I have a few tweaks I could think of:
1. Put Alex Poythress into the lineup and take out one of the Harrisons or James Young. Those two guards, plus Young, tend to dominate the offense too much. Its strength is when Julius Randle has the ball in his hands, or when Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson get the ball around the rim. If those guards and Young aren't shooting well -- and they haven't for most of the season -- they do nothing to draw the defense away from the main attractions inside. Put Poythress in. Use his defensive intensity. Use his experience. Flash him to the high post. Let him hit free-throws, or throw the ball to Randle, or lob it to a big man. Also -- commit to Cauley-Stein. He's a lottery pick. And he's more experienced.
2. Give the ball to Randle in the low block. (I know. Rocket science.) That's more or less what they did offensively at the start of the second half against Florida, and you know what happened next? He scored. And scored. Play like you're Hickory High, and Randle is Jimmy Chitwood. Get him the ball. There were three All-American teams announced yesterday. Randle wasn't on any of them. Not first-team, not second-team, not third-team. I haven't seen 15 players in the country better than Randle this season. But those snubs give Calipari a good opportunity to challenge Randle to prove he belongs.
3. Invert the guards. UK has great size in the backcourt. Why not post them up? Simple thing, but could change the look of UK's offense.
But enough about the tweak, because there are a couple of bigger things to talk about. First, this statement from Calipari, which I thought was the first I've heard from him addressing what, in my mind, is the real issue with this basketball team.
"You've got to sustain your defensive effort, you've got to be scrappier," Calipari said.
Amen. I'd be surprised if this team broke double-digits in deflections in any game in the past month. It doesn't put a premium on steals -- which lead to easy baskets, which lead to dunks, which lead to offensive momentum, which leads to more confident shooting. UK has been below the national average in steal percentage eight of the past nine years. Their idea of pressure defense is a scowl and a wave. Anyway, Calipari has been talking a lot of offense lately, and I thought it was important that he mentioned the defense, and in particular the need for it to be aggressive.
"In other words," he went on, "we've all got to be playing the ball and we've all got to do it for the entire shot clock. We've all got to have discipline, because at the end of the day, we are a defensive team that's a good offensive post-up team."
You may have just read a historic statement there, Wildcat fans. It may be the first time this season I've heard anyone say what this team is. We've heard lots of definitions and predictions. We've heard they are young. We've heard they are not ready. We've heard they are college basketball.
But this is the first time, in concrete terms, Calipari has described so succinctly what exactly this team is on the court: "A defensive team that's a good offensive post-up team."
It's a little late to become a scrambling, high turnover-producing team. But the Wildcats can apply great ball pressure, and they can speed up opponents in transition even off made baskets. This team wants and needs to run. The easiest way to improve field-goal percentage? Get some easy baskets.
The other thing at play with this team is motivation. It's one thing for Calipari to tell them they aren't getting it done. It's another to drop out of the Top 25. They're only the fourth preseason No. 1 to drop out of the rankings in the same season they were No. 1, but none of those others had a 25-team poll, and all three of those got back into the rankings -- two of them into the Top 10 -- before the season was over. For a lot of these highly touted guys, it may be the first time they've been voted out of anything. It's a little tricky, because confidence with this group has been a fragile thing. But you never know what is going to be the jolt that a team needs.
Poll snub? Tweak attack?
Calipari has nothing to lose. He needed to change the narrative, to give the team something to rally around. He needed to press Control-Alt-Delete and reboot. Now he's done it. Will it make any difference? I don't think even Calipari can know for sure. But it gives us something to watch out for in Atlanta.
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