We’re now in Year 11 of the John Calipari experience at Kentucky, and by now we all kind of have a feel for how the ebbs and flows of the season will shake out.
The Wildcats will play a marquee early season game in the Champions Classic, but regardless of whether they win or lose, chances are pretty good there will be bumps through November and December. Then SEC play will start, and the team will pick up steam. And by March, the Wildcats will usually be somewhere in the conversation to earn a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday. That isn’t always the case. But it is in most seasons.
What rarely gets discussed though, is how it happens. How Calipari takes an uneven clump of clay in November and December and molds it into a title contender come March.
Well if there’s one person outside of the Kentucky program who might be able to answer that question it’s probably former Ole Miss head coach and current ESPN/SEC Network analyst Andy Kennedy.
That’s right, Kennedy of course spent close to a decade coaching against Calipari in the SEC, and has spent the last two seasons getting an up close and in person look at the Wildcats’ program as a member of the media.
On Thursday, he joined KSR’s Aaron Torres Podcast to discuss it all (you can click here to listen to the show) and as Kennedy said, it starts with Kentucky figuring out who they are on the offensive end of the court.
“He has a very unusual set of circumstances year in and year out,” Kennedy began. “Now granted, he’s coaching very talented players but they’re brand new, and typically they all come in with a different set of agendas. And he has to figure out the best way for them to play offensively.
Because defensively they’re always going to be solid. They have a high degree of accountability as it relates to them defensively year-in and year out. [Kentucky’s] personnel changes but their DNA of being very, very good, especially in half-court defense, that always stays the same… And offensively, I think they just have to find their DNA.”
It’s a fascinating point by Kennedy, and maybe something that Calipari simply doesn’t get enough credit for. We often discuss how difficult it is for Calipari to bring in new players every single season, but what we don’t often discuss enough is how Calipari is able to figure out his player’s strengths and weaknesses in just a few short months and have them peaking in March. This isn’t Virginia, Villanova or somewhere else where a coach might get 2-3 years to get the most out of his players. Kentucky has 2-3 months.
And again, the place that’s most apparent is on offense, where things seemingly change every year. Some years Kentucky is led by a star point guard like John Wall or De’Aaron Fox. Some years the ball goes through the post like with Anthony Davis. Others it’s on the wing like with Kevin Knox.
Then, there was last year, which Kennedy discussed. In the process he explained how expects this year to shake out as well.
“Last year they had the post grad in Reid Travis and they could throw it into the block and Reid Travis could find a way to get the ball up on the rim. Or they ran the ball through the mid-post to PJ Washington, who got it to Tyler Herro in some pin down actions or allowed him to roll onto the baseline.
Well this year they’ve got to figure out who that guy is. Is it EJ Montgomery in the mid-post, can he deliver something for them down the stretch? Is it going to be Tyrese Maxey where Cal to put him in position to make plays? Will it be Ashton Hagans in high ball screens? Cal will figure all of that out, and you’ll see the best version of the Cats, as you typically always do sometime in early February.”
Again, it’s just a really interesting point by Kennedy, and one we should start to get an answer to here over the next few weeks. With games coming against Georgia Tech and Utah in the next seven days, before back-to-back dates with Top 10 teams Ohio State and Louisville, we will learn quickly how Calipari believes this team will be at its best.
Will it be running the offense through EJ Montgomery in the post? Putting the ball in Tyrese Maxey or Ashton Hagans’ hands and letting them go? Or something else altogether? We should start to find out soon.
To listen to the rest of Kennedy’s analysis on Kentucky, as well as other early-season thoughts on SEC programs like Auburn and Tennessee, make sure and click here to listen to Kennedy on the Aaron Torres Podcast.