We don’t know if John Calipari purposefully got himself thrown out of his team’s matchup against Arkansas last Saturday, and we probably never will. But either way, it’s safe to assume he did know it would instantly become a test for his young team inside a rowdy road environment.
Coach Cal must have been happy with their response (Kentucky did win, after all), because he said he actually didn’t want to emphasize his own presence during the Cats’ next game – Tuesday’s rematch against Georgia inside Rupp Arena. Calipari said he almost followed his own rules for the entire game… Almost.
“Until the last four or five minutes, you know that I was letting it unfold – it was player-driven today,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “Then, two things that happened: Ashton shot a shot early in the shot clock with five minutes to go, and then we started breaking down. And then I had to say, ‘We’re not losing this game.'”
He says he had to step in for the last few minutes, but if Calipari had his druthers, he’d let the players run the whole show themselves, from the game’s tip-off until its final buzzer.
“I would like to go full games without having to be actively involved in it. This team became empowered during that last game [against Arkansas]. And now I think they’re feeling that it’s about each other.”
If Keion Brooks and his current mentality is any indication, Calipari’s assumption is correct. To Brooks, having a “player-driven” team means “we’re going to hold each other accountable.”
“We can’t always rely on [Calipari] to basically bail us out or save us. We’ve got to do it amongst ourselves,” Brooks said after the game Tuesday. “The better teams that travel far in the tournament and have success in March, they’re player driven. They’re teams that don’t rely on their head coach to bail them out or save them anytime something goes wrong.”
After the Cats earned their second win over Georgia, Calipari said he checked in with his team to ask how they felt about a player-driven game. According to Coach Cal, his team was all for it, which earned them an eye roll from their head coach. As for Coach Cal himself, he believes this team actually feels ahead of schedule, saying it’s usually mid-February before his squad becomes “empowered” enough for the coaches to even consider going player-driven.
Still, that doesn’t mean the players have total control.
“They’ve got to be responsible to each other, they’ve got to do their role [and] they can’t break things off and do what they choose. If they do, they’ve got to be on each other,” Calipari added. “You’re empowered. You clean that up yourself. If someone’s not happy with playing time, I’m telling them to go to Ashton [Hagans] and Immanuel [Quickley]. Talk to them – it’s their team.”
That won’t be a problem. Or at least it shouldn’t be, according to Brooks.
“We’ve got to continue to hold each other accountable and continue to listen to one another,” Brooks said. “When we get on each other, it’s not in ill-will or anything like that. We’ve just got to stay positive and keep working with each other.”