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Anatomy of a Kentucky Basketball Practice

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to get to join Kentucky media superstars (look son, Alan Cutler, Matt May, Jerry Tipton….they are all here!!!) and watch the University of Kentucky basketball team practice in the Craft Center. After speaking with a couple of old timers, it was agreed that this was the first open practice UK has conducted since February, 1992, after which Pitino never opened them again and Tubby never began the practice. I found the entire event fascinating….from watching how a Division I team prepares, to seeing the players in a more structured environment, to following the intensity of Billy Clyde. What follows is a long (I apologize) journal-like run-down of the events and what I viewed. Hope you enjoy….

— The atmosphere here is one of excitement, as media members get to see the team for the first time in over 15 years. Goose Givens is in the house, as is Kyle Macy. We are about 20 minutes from beginning and the rap music is blaring through the speakers. Coach Cox is working with the walk-ons, plus Donald Williams, Matthew Pilgrim, AJ Stewart and Jared Carter (poor Jared) for some pre-practice teaching. It is a funny sight to see Cox giving instructions, while Lil Wayne talks about seeing a Shawty in the Club.

— The rest of the guys have arrived and at EXACTLY 3:30, Gillispie walks in and huddles the team up to start with a team prayer, led by Michael Porter. The music has also stopped, and it looks like ten managers/student assistants have descended on the court to make this gym packed. Ramon Harris, who is injured, is shooting set shots on the side. I just watched him make 19 in a row from the elbow of the free throw line….aka, the winning spot in HORSE.

— The practice begins with layup and shooting lines run at an EXTREME PACE. These guys are moving with intensity and there is no stopped movement by any player. The most striking aspect is just how loud the gym is. The student trainers are constantly clapping and cheering on the players, so that the total effect is one that seems like a game atmosphere. The coaches and trainers yell encouragement to the players and clapping is non-stop. Really loud and different.

— They quickly move into a drill with big men one side and guards on the other and they spend five minutes doing nothing but shooting free throw line jumpers….aka the “Ramel Bradley” shot. The guards keep a lead throughout most, but it is uncanny just how few of these shots are missed. Each shot is taken off a pass from the post and guys like Patterson, Stevenson, Meeks and Harrellson miss almost no shots.

— Immediately, what is most striking is the amazing intensity by the players and coaches throughout. In the past, I snuck in to a Tubby practice during college and a Coach K practice during law school. Most of those practices involved lots of teaching and running of plays. This practice is all about movement and intensity. We are 25 minutes in and there has not been one break. You can see how these guys are in such great shape and all people on the floor have a job. Coach Cox takes one group, Cyp the other, Webster tells individuals what they are doing right or wrong and Gillispie walks back and forth barking instructions. It is quite a show.

— All players now step back and shoot three pointers. I have said this before, but if you spend time with great basketball players, it is amazing how well they can shoot unguarded. On the Barnstorming Tour, I played Woo in HORSE 20 times, and only won once, and that was by making three half court shots. He once hit 16 straight threes in our contest….a thought that I had today as I watched Jared Carter knock down 6 in a row.

— A lot of time is spent on one-on-one drills. Gillispie has each player match up with another guy of similar height (Patterson-Stevenson, Carter-Harrellson, Stewart-Pilgrim, Liggins-Williams, Galloway-Miller, Meeks-Porter) and dribble up and down the court while the opponent tries to steal the ball. Then each guy tries to, in five quick seconds, get the ball at the top of the key and take it to the basket. Meeks is the king of this and scores almost at will but it is impressive to watch guys like AJ Stewart use this ability, which may be his best quality. These matchups are intense, and if one guy turns it over or is beat badly on defense, Gillispie lets them have it.

— Halfway through the practice, Gillispie teaches a new drill, which becomes the basis for the rest of the time we watched. Two guards stand at one end of the court, guarded by two others and bring the ball up, while setting a moving screen for each other. On the other end are two big men and a roving position (that comes on and off the court) of two graduate assistants. The goal is to move the ball around, with the defense pressuring the ball and providing help, and then after a set amount of time, attempt to score. It is very similar to a regular game possession and Gillispie follows and analyzes each possession like a hawk. The goal is to get either a layup or an open three…..and thankfully for defensive fans, they get very few of either.

— Gillispie has instituted a system of punishment in which certain errors are “rewarded” with painful ramifications. Let your man get an offensive rebound and you run a suicide. Dont dive for a loose ball and spend three minutes only diving for loose balls (which Josh Harrellson did, getting a scraped and bloody knee in the process). These suicides were run by every big man on the team….except Patrick Patterson.

— It is clear that the Gillispie defensive philosophy is constant ball pressure. In practice what that means is that no matter where the player is on the court across the mid-court line, in your face pressure is applied. The battles and defense continues off the court and out-of-bounds lines are ignored. Players step on the under the basket line and loose balls are followed into the bleachers. Pressure continues everywhere and no stopping occurs.

— Nothing is more fascinating than watching Coach Gillispie throughout. The man looks like an individual completely zoned in and without distraction. He is in constant motion himself, yelling instructions and barking orders to all the players. He is easily upset at bad plays and any mistake can be followed by a “GET OUT!” and the player is out of the next possession. He is particularly hard on the young guys, with Liggins, Galloway and AJ Stewart receiving the majority of his ire. Liggins is clearly exhausted and Gillispie doesnt let up, yelling at every one of his missteps. You can see just how demanding he is to his players and mental errors are unacceptable.

— As for the players, watching practice you can understand how Gillispie’s lineups come to be. There are certain guys who do what he wants, when he wants them to and you can see how they gain favor. Guys like Patterson, Mark Krebs, Michael Porter, Dwight Perry, Perry Stevenson, etc are always in the right place and give 100% effort the whole time. They are sure to be rewarded and that is how we see situations like Mark Coury starting all last season.

All in all, watching Gillispie do his thing at practice showed me more about Coach than anything I have seen so far. His intensity is truly out-of-this world and while I only have a couple of coaches to compare it to, I suspect Billy will top the charts in this regard. There are things about his methods one might question and I do at times wonder if some of the actions make sense (watching Harrellson dive on the floor for three straight minutes hurt me), but at the same time I came away with an immense amount of respect for the system and program he has in place. The guys are focused from the outset, are learning SKILLS that can actually help in a game (a weakness of other practices) and one can see how Gillispie’s admonition that “every player has a role” is especially true. All in all, a great day and one that illustrates exactly what the Gillispie UK program is all about.

Article written by Matt Jones