Last month, John Calipari hosted a roundtable with local reporters to discuss his team’s progress heading into the 2018-19 season. You can view the entire transcript of the conversation here, but these ten things stuck out to me the most.
The “Brandon Knight” culture continues
From early morning workouts at the Joe Craft Center to late night sessions in a ballroom at the Bahamas, it’s clear this team is willing to put in the extra work it takes to be special. Once again, Calipari said this group’s work ethic reminds him of Brandon Knight, whose gym rat mentality propelled Kentucky to a Final Four in 2011.
“I told them yesterday — everybody keeps asking me — I said the biggest thing about this team is the Brandon Knight culture, which was time in the gym. That’s what this group that walks in here, they love being in the gym. They just love the game. They love getting better. They love competing. That’s fun for them. Not running around, [saying] ‘Can’t wait until this is over so I can go.’ That’s not who they are. They love being in the gym. The teams I’ve had that way, normally, they’re reaching beyond what you think they should be able to do.”
Kentucky always has talented players; having players that are talented and willing to sacrifice is what has Calipari “jacked” to come to work each day.
“Yesterday we practiced and I was so jacked to be practicing. We only went for an hour and did all defense, but I think they could tell I was excited to be back. I’m excited about the team because the culture that they’re creating is going to be one of personal and team achievement.”
Freshmen are refusing to back down
Kentucky’s got a great core of veterans in PJ Washington, Nick Richards, Quade Green, and Reid Travis, but Calipari said just because those four are older doesn’t mean the freshmen are letting them push them around.
“The young kids have no idea what they’re about to face; the veterans do. But if the veterans try to get these young kids to back up, literally, the young kids will laugh at them like, ‘You know, no. That’s not how we’re doing this.’ You can come out every time you miss a shot. ‘Well, I’ll get in the gym more.’ So, anything that’s thrown at these young kids, they’re like, ‘No. I’m not buying it.’”
There’s a lot of Keldon Johnson in that quote.
Searching for a catalyst
This interview took place a month ago, and at the time, Calipari was still searching to a “catalyst,” aka a player who can come in and take over the game. This group seems to have a lot of alpha dogs; which one is the meanest?
“What we walked away from [the Bahamas trip] with was, we’ve got a lot of guys. Who’s going to be the catalyst? And you need a couple. Who’s going to be the guy that can change the game for three or for minutes to help you win? Who is that? Still not sure who that will be. You try to have one or two or three of those if you can; if you do, your team is really, really, really good.”
Based off the Bahamas trip, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, and Ashton Hagans come to mind as candidates. Speaking of…
Ashton Hagans: Tyler Ulis 2.0 on defense?
Hagans’ defense was one of the highlights of the Bahamas trip, and when asked whom he would compare Ashton to on that side of the ball, Calipari named one of his most beloved players.
“He’s got a little bit of the stuff that Tyler Ulis would do, which is, you go and he’s there, and then you go, and he’s still there. And then you go, and all of a sudden, he took the ball from you. Like, where did he come from? He’s got a little bit of Tyler. Tyler had to play angles and really had to be advanced in what was happening next because of his size. Ashton hasn’t done that yet. Ashton just mauls you. He knows to stay in front and to body you. He’s not afraid to be physical.”
Could Ashton be the catalyst Calipari’s searching for?
“Yeah. Tyler was a catalyst on that team. And it was as much what he did defensively as what he did offensively.”
He wants Immanuel Quickley to stop trying to be perfect
Immanuel Quickley’s stat line from the Bahamas was as close to perfect as you’ll see from a freshman in a summer exhibition: 18 assists to only two turnovers. Calipari said he’s been thrilled with Quickely so far, going as far to compare him to Brandon Knight in terms of work ethic, but he wants the freshman to let down his guard and take more chances.
“I’m trying to get him – he wants to be perfect. And he almost was down there. I want him to be a little more aggressive, take more chances. He’s used to, boom, the ball comes out, alright, let’s hold. No. Boom, the ball comes out, get in that lane and keep coming. There will be a time where it’s a dead ball, where everything dies and you have to take it and get us back to what we’re doing; he’s learning that. But he was terrific.”
He’s open to a neutral site series with Memphis
Without even coaching a game, Penny Hardaway has reinvigorated the Memphis Basketball program to the point the Tigers are vying with Kentucky for five-star big man James Wiseman. Calipari, who revived the Memphis program himself in the early aughts, said he’s open to a series with Hardaway and Memphis, but only at neutral sites.
“I like Penny and I congratulated him and he and I talked a couple different times, but I don’t believe – look, it’s hard for us to go home-and-home with anybody; it just is,” Cal said. “I don’t think a home-and-home would be in the cards, but playing them, maybe we can figure out something.”
He isn’t going anywhere anytime soon
When asked how he feels going into his tenth season at Kentucky, Calipari broke out his usual jokes about aging at the rate of a president, etc., but also shared a conversation he had with Joe B. Hall when he took the job in 2009.
“I can remember asking Coach Hall, ‘How long a run is this?’ He said, ‘About ten years.’ [Laughter] He said about ten. You know, the lifespan of a president, an athletic director, this level of coaching, it’s usually about ten years. Then after that, stuff gets harder and harder.”
That being said, at 59, Calipari is showing no signs of slowing down, even throwing around the possibility of coaching into his 80s.
“You’re here and it’s a position that, like I said, it took me twenty years to get a job like this. And, so, not as anxious to leave and probably going to stay much longer than I ever thought I’d stay in coaching.”
He really does get the state of Kentucky
We say all the time that Calipari “gets” the Kentucky Basketball program and its fans; that understanding was on full display when he was asked what he’s learned during his tenure in Lexington.
“This is a generous state. And it’s not a rich state. Some may say it’s a poor state, but it’s a generous state. It’s a provincial kind of place. In other words, they’re from where they’re from and they’re proud of it and you ask somebody, they’ll tell you the county they’re from.
“The other thing they’re protective of is their basketball program. What’s beneficial to me is I’m their basketball coach. You come after me, this army comes after you.”
Stitch that on a pillow right now.
“I should be John Wooden. I should have won nine, ten, eleven.”
Inevitably, Calipari was asked why Kentucky only has one title in nine years when 35 players have been drafted by the NBA. In response, he joked that he should have won “nine, ten, eleven” titles so far ala John Wooden, but dismissed the preconceived notion that Kentucky fans expect to win it all every year.
“You know what’s funny? Everywhere I go, everyone says, ‘How do you do it there?’ I go, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘They expect you to win it every year, these people expect that’… I don’t feel that way. What I say to them is, ‘They want to be in the hunt for recruits, they want to have a chance to win it every year. They’d love to win it every year but they want to make sure we’re one of those teams every year.’ That’s fair, I think. Being at Kentucky, that’s a fair thing to want.
“Every year, I’m coaching to win a national title. That’s what I’m coaching for every year I coach here. Have we been in the hunt every year? I’d say every year but one. And if a kid didn’t get hurt, who knows if that would have been every year?”
Will someone please take him to Dunkin Donuts when he’s older?
Calipari said that as he gets older, he worries less and less about his legacy, but admitted that sometimes, he worries he’ll become so irrelevant that no one will care enough to take him out for coffee and a chat.
“This platform will go away at some point. No one’s going to worry about what I’m saying or what I think. I laugh at times. I said, I wonder if someone will say, ‘Hey Cal, let’s go get a coffee and talk basketball’ when I’m done. You laugh about it because I try to take care of veteran coaches any chance I can because of it. And everybody says, ‘Nah, no way.’”
I’ll take you, coach. My treat.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series: