KNOXVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For the first time in its long and storied basketball history, the University of Kentucky has a team at 26-0.
New ground for the Wildcats. Just like old times for coach John Calipari.
There are only three other active coaches who know what it's like to be 26-0 — Bruce Weber at Kansas State, who got Illinois to 29-0 in 2005, and Phil Martelli of St. Joseph's, who had the Hawks at 27-0 in 2004. Gregg Marshall got to 35-0 with Wichita State before losing to Calipari and Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament last season.
And then there's Calipari. He got to 26-0 with UMass in 1996, then lost to George Washington before going to the Final Four. He got to 26-0 with Memphis in 2008 with Memphis, then lost at home to Tennessee before reaching the NCAA championship game.
He's been here, done this, more than any coach of his generation. And he's learned some things. After his No. 1-ranked Kentucky team beat Tennessee 66-48 to give him this milestone with a third different program, Calipari acknowledged as much.
This is a far different team from those others, less dominated by one player, deeper and less susceptible to the slumps or off-nights that could've plagued the others. But they're still college kids and liable to encounter the same roadblocks those other teams did — and that's what keeps him awake at night.
“Every one of the teams has been different,” Calipari said. “This team is the deepest of the three. The UMass team played five, six, my guards played 38 minutes. Totally different. The Memphis team, we were pretty good defensively, but we didn't have the size this team has. Our center was 6'7, 6'8, our forward was 6'7, 6'5, 6'5, then we had this kid, what was his name? Derrick Rose.”
Calipari said it's different having a team without a recognized No. 1 player. He had Marcus Camby at Massachusetts. He had Rose at Memphis. Roles were more defined. He played a deep bench at Memphis, but not as deep as his bench at Kentucky, and that team didn't have as much size.
But when it comes to his wisdom of two accumulated unbeaten stretches, his biggest point is this — sweat the small stuff. Small problems can become big ones. Any problem that can cost you a game later — deal with it now.
“My first time when we did this at UMass, I knew we were slipping but we kept winning so put my head in the sand,” he said. “I was just like, 'Let these guys go do their thing.' I had done it years before we went there, because we went on win streaks in previous years – 17, 15, whatever they were at UMass. Once again, as a coach you win and you want to move on to the next game and you try to put your head in the sand when you have issues that you've got to deal with. I did a little bit of the same but got better at Memphis.”
At Kentucky, he's become hypersensitive to those things. More than once, he has talked in terms of wanting to give these players a chance at a special accomplishment. That's why if he reads something in a book, he'll stop everything and talk to the players for 10 minutes about what he just read, and how they can apply it.
These days, he's sweating everything.
“There's a bunch of stuff that I would have just been nicer or let it go,” he said after the win at Tennessee. “We're winning.”
What kind of things?
“Different shot selections, breaking down on offense, not coming up with a rebound, we jeep winning, we're up 18, I'm not screwing this up,” he said he thinks to himself. “But you are screwing it up if you don't correct. You are screwing it up. If it happens in March and you let it go in February, shame on me. We lost games because of it (at Memphis and UMass), but then I got my senses back, and went right after them on the errors and working on the things that we were doing. And those teams, from those losses, went up. The next game their feet weren't underneath them, if I remember right they were both crappy games, but after that we took off.”
But at this point, in this season, at this school, why lose? Why endure that experience to learn a lesson. Calipari has the best team in the nation. What's the point in taking a loss?
So he has honed his focus. He has sharpened his message. He told his team that more than those other teams, this team's strength is in the “pack.” That's how his big men can play a subpar game at Tennessee, how Karl-Anthony Towns can finish with only three points and take one shot in a foul-plagued 16 minutes, and the team still win a conference game on the road by 18.
“I'm trying really hard to stay focused on what's at hand. If there's issues I bring them out,” Calipari said. “If there's issues within the team that I'm not liking what I feel, I bring them out. Even if I'm wrong I bring them out. 'Let's talk about this.' 'But coach man, you're just dreaming. What were you doing? You reading a book and things popping in your mind? We're fine.' So, that's the kind of stuff that we do and what I'm continuing to do.”
He knows the odds are against his team -- and sometimes believes everyone else is, too. In the same breath talking about his players' accomplishment, he goes back to his old UK-against-the-world theme.
“At a school like Kentucky, to hold the records that they're holding, it's incredible stuff now,” Calipari said. “But there's so much more. We don't need all this other stuff that's out there. I'm watching closely all these shows that are saying how to beat us because I want to make sure that I learn what to do when they say ‘This is what you do to beat them.' I'm watching those shows so closely.”
How closely is he watching? Calipari even knows the TV ratings.
"When we have a 30-point blowout, the TV rating isn't as high - a 1.1 on a Saturday afternoon — but when it is a close game, it is like an NFL number. Maybe that is because they want to see us win a close game. I don't know. It's natural, and there is nothing wrong with it."
Is he watching? You bet he's watching. He's watching everything.
It's the benefit that this Kentucky team has. If it goes undefeated, it'll be in no small part because it has a coach who has been there before.
People talk a lot these days about the 1976 Indiana University basketball team, the last NCAA Division I team to go undefeated. You don't hear as much about the Indiana team of 1975. That team was 31-0 when it lost in the NCAA Tournament — to Kentucky. Knight would later say that the 1975 team was the best team he ever coached, even though the next season's team finished the job. Having gone through the climb once, both Knight and his team were ready for what was to come in 1976.
UK's players couldn't possibly be ready. But this has all the feeling of a moment that Calipari was made for.
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