LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The problems for John Calipari right now are chemistry and geography. These are the first-world problems of college basketball, of course, but the University of Kentucky is nothing if not first-world when it comes to hoops.
And it does have some problems, carrying a 1-4 record into Saturday's CBS Sports Classic matchup with No. 22 North Carolina.
Calipari famously pointed to the long bus ride to Atlanta as one of several contributing factors in his team’s 17-point loss at Georgia Tech a couple of weeks back. On Thursday, he gave more insight into why he chose the six-hour ride instead of the typical charter flight the team normally takes.
“You ready?” he asked reporters, “I thought it was a four-hour bus ride. I did. And when they told me it was six hours, I go, ‘What are you talking about? We’re going to Atlanta.’ They said, ‘It’s six hours. It’s six!’ And I only learned that about four or five days before the bus ride. And you know what, I’m not putting it on (anyone else). It was 12 hours in a short period of time we were on a bus. I’m telling you, I was on a bus that long one time in my life and that was when I was in college.”
There are those who would crush Calipari over this. They’d point out that everyone has GPS. They’d point out that someone who buses to Nashville every year for the SEC Tournament should know Atlanta is more than an hour away. Whatever. Now we know. Cal isn’t the basketball ops guy. He majored in marketing, not geography.
“I took a bus to the Poconos to work the Five Star Basketball Camp,” Calipari went on. “Well, maybe at (UNC) Wilmington. We went to Ashville one time and we drove a bus. It was – oof. It was a bad bus too. So that’s on me. That was my mistake, but I thought it was four hours away. That’s how much I’m driving around. I’m kind of like the guy that doesn’t know how much milk costs even though I do. I’m at Kroger more than you could believe.”
Here’s what you need to know: Calipari would like for you to crush him over this. He’d love for everybody to be talking about buses.
The point is, if you’re crushing Calipari over this, you’re not crushing his young team, and he very much needs his young team to stay upbeat, to not listen to the noise, to maintain its confidence as he tries to get it up to speed.
Calipari is buying time. There’s no bus ride to blame for Kentucky’s performance against Notre Dame, but he’s able to couch on an improved second half to give the team some momentum. You can leave off that Notre Dame was picked to finish 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference, an lost its next game by 10 at home to Duke.
Even in the best of years, with the best of conditions, Calipari faces an uphill battle to mold a cohesive unit out of a bunch of newcomers who barely know each other. Now mix in a pandemic, which means that everything social has to be distant, and the chemistry side of the equation is nearly impossible.
Not that anyone will feel sorry for Calipari. I haven’t listened to talk radio today, but I can already hear the, “Poor guy, didn’t get to take his charter flight for a one-hour trip to Atlanta.”
What’s that? He only has two McDonald’s All-Americans? How can anyone work under such conditions?
Calipari does have a real problem, but like the guy who doesn’t know the price of milk, nobody much is going to care when he describes it.
“We’ve got to think in unison right now,” Calipari said. “And again, let me go back. We’re all in the same boat here -- but they would have been at my house 20 times already in between practices, for dinners, some film (in a normal season). We’re together. (This season) We’ve been there twice. Twice. We will have had dinners together. We will have had functions. They would be in each other’s rooms. They would be playing videos. They would be in the locker room. None of that’s happening. We have 10 new players that don’t know each other. And it’s hard when they’re only together for two and a half hours on the court. So, we’re doing some things that hopefully we stay safe, but I’m trying to say, we’ve got to get to know one another, trust one another as much off the court as on.”
Pulling all that together has been one of the things Calipari has done so well in his career. But the key ingredient in all that is time. That’s a luxury the pandemic has taken away. There is less time together, less time face-to-face, more time for young guys to think about their own aspirations and to listen to the outside voices telling them that they’ve got to be the stars.
Calipari, on Thursday, said he told his players the opposite.
“My thing that I said to them: ‘You don’t think any less of yourself. You just think of yourself less. You still have confidence in how hard you worked and all of those things. You’re just not in the game just thinking of yourself,’” Calipari said.
That’s a great message. It’s just a tough message to drive home if they go from the practice court back to virtual isolation.
The geography challenge is easy to tackle. Kentucky will take a charter flight to Cleveland on Thursday. Done. The chemistry part is tougher. And in this season that is like no other, might take a good bit longer to achieve.
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