Inside Kentucky Basketball: Why It's Now or Never for the 2013-14 Wildcats

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Inside Kentucky Basketball: Why It's Now or Never for the 2013-14 Wildcats
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As their bus motors west through the rain down US Highway 280, members of the Kentucky basketball team stare out the window, zoned out under their hoodies during the 45-minute ride to Auburn Arena.

Some tinker with cell phones. Others listen to music or slouch in their seats, occasionally glancing at the Tennessee-Florida game on the tiny televisions before them.

But there is little talking.

Not on the 38-mile trip from the Columbus, Ga., airport. And not during shootaround the night before their game against the Tigers.

The disconnect lingers the following afternoon at The Hotel at Auburn, where the Wildcats hardly seem to notice two young boys waiting in the lobby with a basketball and a sharpie. Instead they stare straight forward, walking like zombies past the autograph seekers and into a meeting room for lunch and a film session.

Conversation is minimal as players sit around two large tables, dining on steak, spaghetti, waffles, cold cuts and salad. In some ways the Wildcats resemble a group of 40-somethings on a business trip—not a band of teenagers in town to play basketball.

“That’s just their game face,” a staff member says. “They’re focused.”

As he prepares to go over the Auburn scouting report, assistant coach Jon Robic is annoyed with the vibe.

“You’ve gotta snap out of this haze you’re in,” Robic says. “You should be excited to play tonight. We have eight regular-season games left and then the SEC and the NCAA tournaments.

“After that, this team will never be together again.”

Three hours later, head coach John Calipari enters the visitors locker room. Robic has scribbled keys to victory on the dry-erase board, but Calipari is only concerned with the two words in the center, the ones in black, oversized letters.

“IT’S TIME!”

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Calipari points to the phrase and then looks at his 15 players, who are seated on flimsy plastic folding chairs. Tipoff against the Tigers is just moments away, and Calipari wants to make sure his message is clear.

“The season is winding down,” the Kentucky coach says. “It’s time to start playing. Do you want to be good? Or do you want to be special?”

Less than a month before the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats still haven’t grasped what it takes to become the latter.

Calipari wants to see more fight in his players, he says, more dives for loose balls and extra passes that lead to easy baskets.

He wants them to play with the sense of urgency he’d hoped would’ve set in months ago, when Kentucky—bolstered by the most-hyped recruiting class in college basketball history—entered the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America.

Instead, at 18-5, the Wildcats have only shown flashes of becoming the dominant team so many people expected. Former McDonald’s All-Americans pout and walk down the court after a missed shot. Future NBA lottery picks make a basket and then take the next few plays off—or they’ll compete hard for 30 minutes and then let up in the final 10.

“Show emotion on the court—outward emotion!” Calipari says. “Congratulate each other for doing good things. Then you won’t be worried about yourself. All you’ll be focused on is our team, and people watching will say, ‘Damn, they don’t give a s--- about anything except winning.”

Calipari pauses.

“We’re not there yet,” he says, “but when we do get there, this stuff gets scary.”

Moments later, the Wildcats huddle in the tunnel, count to three and softly chant “Brothers!” before trotting onto the court.

Although the outcome is rarely in question, Kentucky’s 64-56 victory over league bottom-feeder Auburn is sloppy, with the Wildcats shooting just 30.9 percent. Calipari says his team was “going through the motions” and criticizes James Young for playing soft.

“What do you have to say to your teammates?” Calipari says to Young in the locker room.

“I’m sorry,” Young replies.

Calipari looks at the rest of his squad.

“I know what I’m asking you to do is hard,” he says. “I know it’s tough worrying about everyone else, especially when your whole life you’ve only worried about yourself. But I’m asking you: ‘Do you want to be special?’ If you do, you’ve got to change.

“When are we going to get it?”

The ideal time would be three days later at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky will host No. 3-ranked Florida in what will easily be its toughest game of the season to date. At 22-2, the Gators are regarded by many as the top team in the country, as each of their two losses came without their full complement of players.

Even more challenging is that four of Florida’s best five players are seniors. The Wildcats start five freshmen.

Kentucky fans, though, aren’t big on excuses. The Wildcats’ top seven players are projected as first-round picks in one of the next two NBA drafts. Florida doesn’t have a single player in its rotation that can make that claim. Just like every game in Lexington, Ky., the pressure to win will be immense. Preparation begins immediately.

A police escort guides the Wildcats’ bus to an airport in Montgomery, Ala., for the flight home. Calipari plops into his seat in the front row—Kentucky uses the same charter plane as the NBA’s Miami Heat—and is already watching tape as his players pass by in the aisle.

One of them is Jon Hood, a fifth-year senior who arrived at Kentucky in the fall of 2009, the same time as Calipari. Hood went to the Elite Eight as a freshman in 2010, a Final Four as a sophomore in 2011 and won an NCAA title as a junior in 2012.

“Every good team I’ve been on here has had a moment, a game, where the light came on and everything just clicked,” Hood said. “We took off from there and never looked back.

“This team hasn’t had that game yet. It needs to happen. It needs to happen soon.”

***

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Two days before the showdown against Florida, Calipari barks orders from the practice court at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington.

Standing in a straight row, the Wildcats listen from the baseline, each of them with arms draped over the shoulders of their teammates, like the cast of “A Chorus Line” preparing for its final bow.

“Cal wants them touching each other,” an administrator says. “He thinks it makes them closer, that it helps bring them together as a team.”

Developing chemistry—both on the court and off of it—is a challenge Calipari faces yearly.

Most players who sign with Kentucky have no intention of staying in college more than a season or two. They arrive having never experienced failure on the hardwood. In virtually every scenario, they’ve been the best player on their high school team without truly having to work.

Signees hear that 17 Kentucky players have been selected in the NBA draft since Calipari’s arrival five years ago and assume it will happen for them. Time and time again during recruiting visits, prospects tell Calipari they want to be a pro.

Kentucky's NBA Draft Picks in the Calipari Era
Year No. of Picks Highest Selection
2010 5 John Wall: Round 1, Pick 1
2011 4 Enes Kanter: Round 1, Pick 3 (Note: Kanter enrolled at Kentucky but was ruled ineligible to play by the NCAA)
2012 6 Anthony Davis: Round 1, Pick 1
2013 2 Nerlens Noel: Round 1, Pick 6

Basketball-Reference.com

“Fine,” he’ll say, “but do you know what that means?”

Mostly, Calipari says, it entails breaking old habits and developing new ones. It means making statistics and individual glory secondary to team success. It calls for a complete change in work ethic, diet and lifestyle—all in a year’s time.

“What we ask of them is unfair,” Calipari says, “but it’s the life they chose.”

The rude awakening for this year’s squad occurred in the third game of the season, when the Wildcats lost to Michigan State in Chicago. In the months leading up to the game there had been talk that Kentucky, with its seven McDonald’s All-Americans, could go undefeated en route to the NCAA title, a perfect 40-0.

Calipari was stunned when he entered the United Center locker room after that 78-74 loss and saw some of the Wildcats weeping. It was evident: The 40-0 expectations had taken on a life of their own, consuming not only the fans, but the players, too.

Ever since that night, Calipari has tried to change how the Wildcats think and react on the court. He says he wants them to “lose themselves” in the game, worrying less about their individual stats and accomplishments and more about the success of entire team.

He wants them to eliminate the whiny faces and mental letdowns that come after a missed shot or a turnover and, instead, find a way to impact the game on the defensive end. He wants them to chest-bump their teammates after a big shot or help them from the floor when they get knocked down.

“If you’re thinking about everyone else—if you’re thinking about winning—you don’t have time to have a bad response,” Calipari says.

Calipari understands that making the conversion is far from easy. But he continues to push and prod.

He likened the situation to a tug-of-war, where one of two things will happen: Calipari will give up before his players do, or they’ll surrender first. It’s a constant battle of whose will is stronger, he says.

“You hug, you love and you show tape,” he says. “Then, if they don’t change, you sit them.

“You tell them, ‘You can fight me on this, or you can just roll with it and do what we ask you to do. There’s a fine line between making it and not making it. Right now, you’re not making it.’”

Calipari says he calls his advice “bitter medicine.”

The players need it, but it’s often difficult to ingest. Instead they often choose the “honey” offered by those closest to them. Usually it’s a high school coach, a parent or a hanger-on telling a player he’s being wronged by the coaching staff in regard to playing time, that everyone else is the problem—not the player himself. Calipari says those people stunt a player’s growth.

“So who do they want to hear from?,” Calipari says. “Me, or that person on the phone, the one with the honey? If they chose the person on the phone, they’re not ready to change.”

The Wildcats understand what Calipari is asking them to do. They believe they’re making progress. Yes, they may revert back to their old ways at times, but it’s never intentional.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“Guys don’t do it on purpose,” center Willie Cauley-Stein says. “If you’ve been one way your whole life, you can’t just change out of nowhere and become someone totally different in a couple of months. It’s a process.”

As much as they want to please their coach, Calipari’s commands aren’t the only thing on the Wildcats’ minds. Since their early years of high school, every member of Kentucky’s rotation has been tagged as a future NBA draft pick, a potential millionaire.

Two players—forward Julius Randle and wing James Young—have performed well enough as freshmen to project as lottery picks in this summer’s draft. Others, such as Cauley-Stein and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, have seen their stock fluctuate.

They say it’s hard not to wonder how a poor shooting night or a game spent on the bench because of foul trouble could affect their stock. Andrew Harrison says he feels as if he’s going to a job interview each time he steps onto the court. His brother agrees.

“Of course we want to win,” Aaron Harrison says. “Everyone does. But we’re also aware that we’re being evaluated individually. It’s about the team, but it’s also about how you’re playing.”

Cauley-Stein says the stress of the situation can become difficult to manage, especially for a first-year player. Things can snowball, Cauley-Stein says, with one bad performance turning into two or three.

Turning on television or perusing social-media sites such as Twitter or Facebook only makes it worse.

“Let’s say you have two bad games in a row,” he says. “You’re getting killed in the community, you’re getting killed on TV, you’re getting killed in every way possible. It’s a lot for an 18- or 19-year-old kid. You think, ‘If I go out and have another bad game, it could get worse.’ It takes the fun out of the game when you start thinking that way.”

Cauley-Stein shakes his head.

“You can get yourself so far into a hole that you don’t even want to play,” he says. “Sometimes I think we forget what we’re really playing for. There is so much pressure on you from every direction. We forget that it really is just a game.”

***

It’s 8:40 a.m. on Valentine’s Day when John Calipari’s silver BMW SUV pulls into Dunkin’ Donuts, a routine pit stop after the coach attends morning Mass.

Coffee and a breakfast wrap in hand, Calipari sidles up at a countertop facing Main Street and strikes up a conversation with two strangers about his plans to build a summer home in New Jersey.

James Crisp/Associated Press

A woman approaches and asks Calipari to pray for a friend in the hospital. Moments later, another lady interrupts and hands Calipari her cellphone. She asks him to say hello to her husband, Ramon, a huge Wildcats fan who surely won’t believe she’s in the presence of the most famous man in the state.

“Ramon!” Calipari says into the phone. “Make sure you buy your wife some flowers today.”

Calipari receives a text from the grandmother of former player Anthony Davis, wishing him a happy Valentine’s Day as a staff member arrives to remind him of his scheduled appearance on SportsCenter a few hours later. There’s a press conference at 2 p.m. and practice at 6:30 p.m. Sometime in between, Calipari wants to watch tape of Florida.

For the most part, it’s like this every day for Kentucky’s head coach.

Calipari says someone recently showed him a picture from his introductory press conference in Lexington five years ago.

“I look 17,” he says. “I’d always looked young for my age. I don’t anymore.”

Taxing as it can become, the spotlight that accompanies the Kentucky basketball job isn’t the only thing wearing on Calipari.

Since 2005, an NBA rule has stipulated that prospects must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school before entering the NBA draft. In essence, Calipari is signing many of his top players to one-year contracts: 11 of the 19 high school players in his first four recruiting classes left for the NBA after their freshman year.

The rewards of inking such talented prospects are high. Calipari is 143-32 in four-plus seasons in Lexington, where his first three years resulted in an Elite Elite, a Final Four and an NCAA title, respectively.

Calipari becomes irritated when people suggest it’s easy to win with such talented players.

“Try coaching a new team every single year,” Calipari says. “You’re constantly changing the way you play, because you keep getting new guys who are better at different things. At least if you coach the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat, you’ve got the same team for three or four years.”

The simple argument is to suggest that Calipari should blend other types of players into his recruiting classes, guys that may stay in school three or four years that would add stability and leadership to the program.

“What am I supposed to do, recruit bad players?” he says. “Or I could brainwash kids like John Wall and Brandon Knight—guys who should go pro—to stay another year. But then I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, knowing I may have cost them millions.”

Calipari references the Florida team that won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007 with Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, all of whom were lottery picks after their junior season.

“After Billy (Donovan) won and his guys left, he said, ‘OK, I’m going to recruit guys that are going to stick around and be second-round picks,” Calipari says. “Then he went to the NIT for two years. I’m not doing that.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“I’m going to recruit the best players I can recruit. That’s what (Donovan) started doing again, too. If they leave, they leave. You just have to roll with it.”

Calipari finds it comical when other coaches are critical of his philosophy.

“They say, ‘I would never do what Cal is doing,’” Calipari says. “If that’s the case, then why are they recruiting the same kids I’m recruiting?”

Even though he’s been successful under the current format, Calipari can’t help but wonder how life would be different if the rules were changed. Imagine, he said, how dominant Kentucky could be if players such as Randle and Young stuck around for a second season, developing their game even more while completely grasping the team-first philosophy.

Instead he’ll continue to find ways to flourish under the system that’s in place, even if it ends up taking years off of his career. The SEC’s oldest coach at 55, Calipari says he’ll look 70 if he has to coach another five years under the current rules.

“You push so hard, and you’re held to a different standard here,” Calipari says. “It’s a different level. Every day is a grind to get these kids ready. If I can’t keep up the pace for these kids, then I’ll be cheating them and I won’t do it anymore.”

Calipari looks at his watch and heads toward the door.

“Seriously,” he says, “I don’t need the money. I’m not trying to get 1,000 wins. If I can’t keep giving everything I have, I’ll walk away.”

Retirement, though, is the furthest thing from Calipari’s mind as he makes a left on Rose Street and drives to his office.

The Florida game is tomorrow night.

***

Just before 7 p.m. on Friday evening, John Calipari stands before his players in a conference room at the Joe Craft Center. Less than an hour earlier he’d shown up at Rupp Arena with donuts for the students camped out for seats in 37-degree weather.

“It’s raining,” he tells the Wildcats, “and they’re still out there in tents. Something tells me it’ll be worth it.”

The lights are dimmed as Calipari begins a film session. Rather than footage of Florida, Calipari has spliced together clips of star players Young and Randle when they were at their best.

He praises Young for how well he moves without the ball, pointing out how his hands are always in the ready position to receive a pass, how his knees are bent so he’ll be prepared to shoot after the catch.

Next are clips of Randle, the 6'9", 250-pounder who is one of the top inside forces in college basketball. Highlight after highlight is shown of Randle outworking defenders for offensive rebounds or ripping the basketball away from an opponent. His tenacity is breathtaking, especially when shown in such high repetition.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“Look at yourself!” says Calipari, raising his arms. “Look at what you’re doing! Normal human beings can’t do that! If you play like that and go 2-for-9, we’ll win!

“The question is whether you can go 2-for-9 and still play like that.”

The Wildcats jostle in their seats as the film comes to an end, looking at each other smiling. It’s clear they’ve been energized by the footage—and by Calipari’s speech.

Make no mistake: The coach is excited, too.

Privately, Calipari has confided to friends and staff members that this is his favorite Kentucky team. There are no malcontents, he’s said, no kids who cause trouble in practice or disrespect their coaches, no players who present problems off the court.

The selfish habits that may exist were ingrained by others and were out of their control, says Calipari, who senses his team genuinely wants to get better.

Earlier in the day he sent Young a text message, explaining to the freshman that he was being hard on him because he knows he capable of becoming one of the country’s elite players. He just has to give more.

“I know, Coach,” Young replied. “Let’s watch some tape today. Stay on me!”

“Love ya kid,” Calipari wrote back.

Exchanges such as those are why Calipari remains encouraged about this year’s squad. He knows there have been shortcomings, but he also sees growth. Critics chide the Wildcats for losing at Arkansas and LSU, but Calipari can find positives in each defeat.

“We’ve lost five games by 21 points,” he says. “We’ve been in every game. The growth of this team has been phenomenal. We’re on a gradual climb and, hopefully, we’ll peak at just the right time.”

Kentucky fans, though, aren’t used to gradual.

With the exception of last season, Calipari’s teams are usually good from the get-go. The Wildcats went 35-3 in his first season in 2009-10 and 38-2 during their championship run two years later.

Calipari, though, points out that those two squads featured veterans to help set an example for the talented freshmen. Patrick Patterson was there for John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in Calipari’s first season. Senior Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were big parts of the NCAA championship squad along with freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.

“Right now we’ve got the typical, freshman-dominated team,” Hood says. “That team was atypical.”

The only time Calipari’s strategy failed was last spring, when a lack of depth and a season-ending knee injury to center Nerlens Noel kept the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament.

“That team was an anomaly,” Calipari says. “Every once in a while, doing it this way, you’re going to have a year like we had last year. You’re going to have a year that is subpar. It just happens.”

Calipari is convinced his squad will be remembered as much more than “subpar.” The Wildcats have fallen from No. 1 to No. 18 in the AP poll and are just 1-3 against Top 25 opponents.

Still, players say they can sense things are about to change. The dominance they’ve shown in flashes will soon become the norm. Their intensity will last a full 40 minutes instead of just coming in spurts.

Andrew Harrison says he’s so excited about playing Florida that he can barely sleep. Randle looks forward to his matchup with Gators forward Patric Young.

“We’re right there,” Randle says. “We’re so close to getting over that hump and becoming something great.”

As the film session comes to a close, Calipari has a few more words about Florida before his team takes the court for practice.

“If they play harder than you, you’ve got no shot,” Calipari says. “They’re coming in here not just to win, but to smash us. They’re coming after us.

“But we’re going after their asses, too.”

*** 

An unfamiliar silence hovers in Rupp Arena as John Calipari walks alone down the hallway leading to the Wildcats locker room. He peels off his black sport coat, and the blue button-down shirt he’s wearing underneath is stuck to his back with sweat.

The speeches, the film sessions, the motivational texts and practices weren’t enough to keep Kentucky from losing to Florida 69-59. The loss is just the third for Calipari in 84 games at Rupp Arena, where Florida hadn’t won since 2007.

“We just lost our energy at the end,” Young says. “We lost our focus.”

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky led by seven points with 11 minutes remaining but, just as Calipari had feared, Florida’s seniors maintained their intensity for 40 minutes while the Wildcats let up when it mattered most. The Gators outscored Kentucky 31-14 over the final 11 minutes.

“They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch,” Calipari says.

Calipari tries to paint a positive picture. The Wildcats outshot Florida from the field while Young, Randle and Andrew Harrison—Kentucky’s three biggest stars—combined for 52 points.

Florida may be the best team in the country, Calipari says, yet his team had a chance to win. In March, things could be different.

Now he has to convince his players of that.

Again.

“Nobody is discouraged,” says Randle, but the Wildcats’ body language tell a different tale.

Young and Andrew Harrison speak so softly during postgame interviews that their voices are barely audible. Randle squirms in his seat and rolls his eyes, annoyed with reporters’ questions about what went wrong.

The Wildcats, after all, had hoped tonight would be different. They’d hoped it would be the turning point in their season, the game when they’d finally resemble the great Kentucky teams of the past as their performance elevated to that magical level, where every player was the best version of themselves.

“We haven’t seen that yet,” Cauley-Stein says. “I really couldn’t tell you if we will.”

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.  

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