What's the 'Tweak' That Fueled Kentucky's Turnaround in 2014 NCAA Tournament?

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What's the 'Tweak' That Fueled Kentucky's Turnaround in 2014 NCAA Tournament?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

DALLAS — Welcome to the "Where's Waldo" of the NCAA tournament.

John Calipari has sent us on a wild goose chase the last few weeks as the college basketball world tries to figure out "the tweak" Calipari made to turn this whole thing around.

"The stuff we tweaked before the tournament, I should have done two months before," Calipari said last weekend.

What exactly was that "tweak"?

"Coach said not to say anything about it," Aaron Harrison said. "So..."

So you leave us and Bo Ryan scrambling to figure out what it was that Calipari did to make this all work.

I looked to figure it out this week. I watched tape. I talked to Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who lost to UK in the first round, and two SEC coaches, Texas A&M's Billy Kennedy and Mississippi State's Rick Ray, to see if they saw something that I wasn't seeing.

The Wildcats, as you know by now, were the most disappointing preseason No. 1 in recent memory. All the greatest recruiting class of all time gave Calipari was a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and a whole lot of flack from fans and media about his one-and-done approach.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That's why this "tweak" is so intriguing, because everyone had counted the Wildcats out. They lost three of four games to finish the regular season.

Weeks ago, the story was that Calipari was coaching six McDonald's All-American freshmen with bad body language and pouting faces. Now he's coaching six freshmen who seem to love each other and play in pressure-packed moments with as much ease as if they were shooting hoops in their driveway.

What we're seeing now is a team that would have deserved to be preseason No. 1 and not the one that was a mix of mediocre and malcontent for four months.

Coach Kennedy, you play in the SEC and keep an eye on these guys all year. Any ideas?

"One: They're competing at a higher level," Kennedy said. "Two: I think they understand their roles more. And then the third thing, I know from seeing the Texas kids (Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison) in high school, they were never true freshmen anyway. They understand and know how to perform on a big stage, as most freshmen don't and can't do."

But, c'mon. What we're seeing is that it takes time to for talented guys to buy in and understand their roles? 

That wasn't enough. I needed to understand these numbers. 

Kentucky went from shooting 31.6 percent from deep in the regular season to 41.2 percent in the postseason (SEC and NCAA tournaments combined). Aaron Harrison was a 30.8 percent three-point shooter and has shot 50 percent (22-of-44) in the postseason. 

"The Harrison twins are playing better," Ray said, bluntly. "I think everyone when they were game-planning, these guys were supposed to be All-Americans, supposed to be like lottery picks, but people weren't even guarding them at the three-point line." 

So the twins, Aaron specifically, started making shots, but what about how they finish now? 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The 'Cats went from playing lackadaisical basketball to some Jack Bauer-like focus that allowed them to score on each of their last nine possessions against Wichita State, five of their last six against Louisville and all five of their final five possessions against Michigan.

These dudes turned into assassins. How does that happen overnight? 

"I just think maybe he's left them alone a little bit," Weber said. "They're doing a lot of the same stuff. Obviously, they're playing with a lot more confidence. They're making shots. They're playing harder. They seem to be playing really well together."

But Coach. They had to do something differently to get all of those shots to suddenly drop, right? 

"They put in one different look that we didn't guard, but everybody does that," Weber said. "You add a little tweak here to one play, but it's not like that one play makes a difference in the game."

One change Kentucky's players have leaked—maybe by accident?—is to get Andrew Harrison to focus more on creating for his teammates; UK coaches put in a rule that he had to pass the ball before he could ever shoot it.

Harrison is averaging 5.3 assists in the NCAA tournament—he averaged 3.9 before—and the ball is sticking a lot less.

"I think the trust factor, and also just they're making shots," Weber said, repeating Ray's theory. "We thought if we really protected the lane—which we did and I thought we did a pretty good job—we had to force them to make threes and they made four threes in the first half. And that's not a moment, but for them, instead of two, that's the difference in the game."

Aaron Harrison has been the closer—four straight dagger threes against Michigan—and benefited from that trust more than anyone else. He also knocked down the go-ahead three against Louisville off a pass that Julius Randle admitted the next day he would not have made weeks prior.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

So maybe "the tweak" was more mental than a tangible change. Maybe it was a motivational tactic that Calipari is keeping from us just to be coy?

Harrison said on Sunday night after Kentucky beat Michigan that Calipari was coaching emotion and energy before, and now "he's just teaching us."

And words like energy and effort kept coming out of the mouths of the three coaches the more they talked about the Wildcats.

"I think they're playing a lot harder," Weber said. "Their defensive effort is way better than what we watched film from earlier games. That would be my observation."

That's what I saw too. Calipari's greatest strength has always been to get great players to focus on playing with max effort on the defensive end (see 2012), and this team went through the motions for most of the year.

Ray said he believes their transition defense has improved as well. They gave up too many easy buckets before, he said.

As I watched the tape, I noticed one change that I thought reflected effort. During the season, Kentucky switched almost every ball screen. In the tournament, the 'Cats are still switching some ball screens, but not every single one.

And switching ball screens can be a lazy man's defense. It's the easy way out, but Weber didn't exactly see it that way entirely, and I agree with him. When Willie Cauley-Stein has been the switchee, Weber pointed out, it has often worked.

"It hurt us because he's more agile than their guards," Weber said. "When (Dakari) Johnson is in, it's a different story. He doesn't have the mobility to do it, and you're able to take advantage of that."

Do you think John Calipari's "tweak" is what turned Kentucky's season around?

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That's probably why Kentucky did less switching once Cauley-Stein was injured against Louisville or when he had been on the bench in the first two tourney games. And maybe a simple "do everything you can not to switch unless Cauley-Stein is involved" made the Wildcats more locked in on the defensive end and made them play with more effort by accident.

Or maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe Calipari has distracted us on purpose and made us write about something other than the one-and-done culture of his program.

Maybe this is all just a game he created?

"I'm going to wait until it's over and I'll go through everything that we did and when I did it," Calipari said. "When you hear what I did, you'll say, 'makes perfect sense.' And then you're going to ask: 'Why didn't you do it earlier?' And I'm going to tell you: 'I don't know. Should have.'"

Sure you are, Cal.

It has been one helluva turnaround, and we'll wait eagerly to hear "the tweak" that saved a season.

But, but...could you just tell us now? Please!

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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