On August 28, University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari held a Q&A session with several members of the local media. He spoke for a little under an hour (mostly saying whatever he wanted to say, regardless of the question) about the upcoming 2017-18 college basketball season and what he expects of his team, which, he’ll remind you: is the youngest in the country.
The interview was embargoed for over a month, but now it’s available to the world.
You can read Kentucky Sports Radio’s highlights of the interview below; or the entire transcript can be read here, if you’re really up for the challenge.
“None of the guys are where they need to be.”
“This is going to be one of those season-long — we’ve been through it before,” Calipari said of his young team. “It’s hard. It’s hard to be patient for me and our fans and everybody else, but you’re just going to have to be. We’re not going to know exactly how we’re playing until February and March. We won’t. But we’re talented.”
“We’re walking in to where we are so far behind every other team,” he continued. “Literally, we’re walking in with — I don’t know. You don’t have the time in the summer. You’re working two hours a week. They come back, we can’t touch them for seven days or whatever it is. We’ll be behind but that’s all part of it.”
“You’ve been through a root canal; you can do this, right?”
Calipari is no stranger to coaching an inexperienced team of freshmen, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“That’s like saying, ‘Okay, you’ve been through a root canal; you can do this, right? You’re better prepared. You’ll do fine.’ No. No. It’s still going to be painful.”
He compared this year’s challenge to the challenge he faced in 2013-14, when he signed five of the top 10 players in America.
“You have a talented group of kids, but they’re not ready to win basketball games,” he said. “They’re exchanging baskets. And that’s where this team is.”
“We’ve got a great group of kids.”
One of the most amazing things about John Calipari’s time at Kentucky is that he has somehow managed to recruit the best of the best, but without any bad apples in the bunch. This year is no different. From top to bottom, he has a great group of young men on and off the court.
Campers at the John Calipari Basketball Fantasy Experience, and members of the media (myself included), have raved about the new wave of freshmen, he said.
“The fantasy campers, two or three campers are with each team. I probably had twenty guys come back to me and say, what a great group of kids. Some of you in the media that met with them the other day said, what a great group of kids.”
“Wenyen’s playing way better, thank God.”
One of the stars of the offseason chatter has been returning sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, who CBSSports.com’s Jon Rothstein called, “Kentucky’s best player this summer.”
Cal helped fuel that freshman-to-sophomore hype when Gabriel was the first player he mentioned in the 50-minute preseason interview. When asked about having another freshman-laden team, Cal responded, “First of all, Wenyen’s playing way better, thank God. So, he’s not the same guy he was a year ago.”
So, don’t sleep on a second-year Wenyen Gabriel.
“This could be a team that should play zone.”
Calipari considering a zone defense?! What?!!!
I wouldn’t expect it, but he’s at least entertaining the idea.
“We’ve got to be prepared from day one, okay, probably put in a zone,” he said. “And this could be a team that should play zone. Whether I play zone, I don’t know. You’re long and big and this could be a good zone team.”
Tony Barbee has long been an advocate of the zone defense, but Cal hasn’t budged. This year, though, Cal will teach it early in the season because so many teams will zone against them.
“I think from day one, we have to have a zone. Start breaking it down, start adding it and then start working on it because we’re going to have to work against it. And if we can play against our own zone, I imagine we can play against anybody else’s.”
Can you imagine the possibilities if they do zone?
“We could play with Nick [Richards], or you could play with one of those other bigs or play with all 6’9” guys. You could play with Hami[dou Diallo] and Quade [Green] — who’s better than I thought he was, which is a good thing. I knew he was good but there were some things because of his size, that I was worried about, but he’s fine. Shai, at 6’6”, you could have two 6’6” guards and three 6’9” guys. What?”
“Quade is better than I thought.”
“Quade was almost a walk-it-up point guard,” he explained. “But he runs the floor like Tyler (Ulis) ran the floor. Now I’m not comparing him to Tyler because that wouldn’t be fair to him, but he runs the court like Tyler did.”
“He’s really sprinting the ball up; he’s throwing it ahead; he gets people involved. He’s got some things to do defensively; you know, be more disruptive and all those things because of his size. But I said to him in front of the team before we went home for summer, I said, ‘Quade is better than I thought.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know you were this fast.’ You know what his comment was? ‘I didn’t know either.’ Then I said, ‘So why are you playing like this?’ He said, ‘Because you told me. You told me if I didn’t then I wouldn’t play.’”
“Shai can run the point.”
“He’s good,” Cal said of freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was somewhat overlooked in a class of young stars. “But he’s more of a ‘I’m going to try and get some baskets, I’m going to break this off,’ — that feel to be that position. He’s not to the level of Quade; but, here’s a kid that’s 6-5, he’s long, he can go get baskets, he’s got kind of an old man’s game. Great work ethic. He’s playing, and they can play together or he can play by himself. Or we could play those two and Hami (Diallo) together if you wanted to.”
“Quade will lead, but you need Hami.”
“When you watch the court, you’ll say: Quade will lead, but you need Hami. If you’re going to be that guy, you’ve got to lead. And leading means you’ve got to serve them. And I’ve talked to Hami about it. I said, man, you can’t go off in your room and put your headphones on. These guys have got to know you’re there for them. They’ve got to know it. They’ve got to know you’re not here just trying to do your thing. You cannot lead if that’s who you are. And if your stuff goes south, no one’s going to help you if you’re that way. If you want to lead, everyone here is going to be about you. And that means they’ve got to know, Hami is for me. But that’s all new to these guys. Bob Rotella tells me all the time, you’ve got to teach them how to lead. If you want them to lead, you’ve got to teach them because if you think they know that, you’re crazy. They don’t.”
Sounds like there is a lot of weight on Hami’s shoulders to be that guy.
“Guys are going to have to carve out their own space.”
“What I always say here is, if you want to play at Kentucky, you’ve got to be willing to carve out your own space, because you’re not going to be the only guy. You’ve got to carve out your own space. If a guard calls John Wall and says, John, I’m thinking about going to Kentucky, he’ll say, can you get your own shots? The guard will say, why? Because he ain’t running plays for you. You’ve got to go get your own shots and you’ll be playing with your teammates; but if you think, we’ll run something for you — he doesn’t. And he’s right. If he said, somebody came back to me and told me that, well, I hate to tell you, he’s right.”
It’s not for everyone, right?
“I’m playing freshmen if they’re better than the players that are here.”
Sophomores, juniors and seniors — you do not have an advantage over the newcomers, Cal said.
“And that is not my fault. If you were here, you’ve had the experience, you’ve been coached, you’ve been challenged. If you let that guy be better than you, then he’s better than you. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to play or you won’t make it.”
“I’ve probably started — my guess is, 30-40 freshmen since I’ve been coaching. I’ve probably had the Freshman of the Year in the league, I’m guessing, 20 of those years. I’ve had National Freshman of the Year. If they weren’t Freshman of the Year, they were on the All-Freshmen team and the reason they weren’t Freshman of the Year is someone else on our team was Freshman of the Year, so you’re just first team All-Freshmen.”
“I think you have a couple alpha dogs.”
Is there an alpha dog on the roster?
More than one, actually.
“P.J. has that mentality,” Cal said, when asked about any alpha dog personalities. “I would say Hami has that personality. Quade has that personality. I think you have a couple.”
“Jarred Vanderbilt — they’re like WOW.”
This quote is tough to swallow given the recent news of Jarred Vanderbilt’s injury, but this is what Calipari said a month ago about his freshman forward: “What the hell is he? He’s 6-9 and everybody loves him. You talk to anybody that evaluates us, they’re like, WOW.”
The best case scenario is Vanderbilt is back in time for SEC play in January.
“There’s no reason for P.J. to be a bad free throw shooter.”
“In Egypt, he was awful,” Cal said of P.J. Washington’s time at the stripe. “I told him, it’s good you’re getting this out now because you know you can’t be in the game late if this is who you are. But there’s no reason for him to be a bad free throw shooter. But I think again, everything comes down to his lift. Even if you’re getting, even on your toes, the lift makes it about muscle memory. If your lift is different, you’re just mental with it. It’s more mental than muscle memory.”
Vanderbilt’s foul shooting has also underwhelmed, but Cal doesn’t seem too concerned.
“I think they’re both tough enough that late in the game, they’ll make shots, but that’s an area they’ve got to improve.”
“I can’t stand ISIS.”
How’s that for an attention grabber?
The Q&A session ended with some political talk, when Cal was asked about the power of his seat and knowing what he says carries a lot of weight.
I’ll leave you the full quote without comment of my own:
Sometimes I’ll say stuff and they’re like, ‘Why don’t we hold that back.’ But the best thing that we have going here is, I cannot tweet myself. I have to give it to somebody to do it because I don’t have a computer. I can’t see the phone. I’d probably mess it up. So it goes to somebody first, and then it usually hits six eyes, maybe eight eyes, before my stuff does anything. And then we talk, and the reason is, because I am sensitive to the seat I hold. I’m also sensitive to not getting into the political fray of republican/democrat. It’s just how I feel. But I am American — I’m an Italian citizen to but — I am a citizen and I have the ability and the right to speak my mind, but it’s different for me because I have a seat that I shouldn’t try to sway politics. I shouldn’t. If I’m not in this seat it may be different, but I am in this seat and that’s just how I feel. I know some people won’t agree with me and say ‘You should even more.’ Now there are things that I will stand up for that I think are — if I think something is right and something is wrong, that’s totally a different deal. But how you get to the end result of taking care of people and getting more people work, health care — there’s different ways of doing it. Now I think we should have more jobs for people. I think we should have health care that works. I think we should have — our immigration should be fixed, whether it’s people in the country that work, how do we fix it? I can’t stand ISIS. Basically, what I’m saying to you is, there is stuff out there and there are all kinds of ways of doing it. It’s really funny: if I stood with President Bush, which we have, I got people mad that I’d even go near this guy. When I sit down with President Clinton, they go nuts. When we showed up and took a phone call from President Obama, bang. I talked to President Trump before he was President Trump, and people go nuts. If I’m sitting with Mitch McConnell, they go crazy. When I took a picture with Congressman Pelosi, oh my gosh, you would’ve thought I was just — me meeting with somebody and talking to them, or asking them questions — I sat down with Leader McCarthy when I was in DC. We had a great conversation, whether he is republican or democrat or independent. Those guys are impacting lives. I’d like to know what they’re thinking. I’d like to talk to them. But in this seat, it’s not my job to move somebody’s belief. I don’t think I should do that. Now some don’t agree with me. Some think you should do it because you could impact, but what if I impact it not the way you see? “Well then don’t impact it.’ Well oh really? So I should only impact it if it’s the way you think I should impact it? Okay, that works.
You can read the entire transcript of the 50-minute interview here.