Kentucky’s basketball team faces a steep learning curve every year. Freshmen come in – many of them straight from a high school gym, remember – and they’re simply not quite ready for what Kentucky basketball entails. The practices get more intense, the weights get heavier and the fan scrutiny can sometimes become overwhelming.
This year is no exception. It’s just early November, but Kentucky’s storied program and history means fans are ready to see a Final Four-caliber team every time the Cats hit the floor. And when that’s not the case, there’s trouble.
John Calipari knows this, but he also knows what it takes to bring a team composed mainly of underclassmen to the NCAA National Championship game. He’s done it before. But with this team, he’s had to go back to the basics.
“If you think they know, you just made a mistake.” Calipari said of making assumptions about his players’ current repertoires. “We’ve gone way back [to] what you do in the first week of practice. I thought we were beyond that. Well guess what? We weren’t.”
Coach Cal went on to compare Kentucky’s progress to North Dakota’s – even though the Cats outscored the Fighting Hawks 96-58, Calipari was impressed by North Dakota’s players, who were already “cutting and back cutting and a making threes and doing stuff,” as he said in the post-game press conference. But for the Wildcats, their main focus in practice this week has been the more simple aspects of the game.
“We worked on setting screens and rebounding, and that was pretty much it. I mean, those two were the main focus and then defense as well,” PJ Washington said. “I think we were getting too much into farther stuff at the beginning of the season, so right now we’re just trying to take things slowly. We’ve got to realize it’s a process and we have to take it one step at a time.”
And no one understands the exhaustion of each painstakingly-slow step quite like John Calipari. He’s been at this for a while now, and yes, this is where he made another classic “this job will age you” quote. But remember – it’s where the team is by the end of the season that truly matters.
“I forget how hard this is because all I remember is the end of last year – I don’t remember all the way through. I don’t remember the four losses in a row; I don’t remember how bad we were playing for awhile. I remember the league tournament and I remember the NCAA tournament,” Calipari said. “And then I get back in the middle of this and I’m like, oh, this is going to be really hard. And every year it’s the same. And that’s why you look at me and say, boy, he does age. Year-to-year he gets old. Well, this will get you old real fast.”
Regardless of how much time and hard work it takes to get there, freshman Keldon Johnson says the team is up for the task.
“It is what it is. If that’s what we’ve got to do to win, then that’s what we’ve got to do,” Johnson said of their necessity to go back to square one. “We’re all in together to win, so if [Calipari] has to take it back that far for us to be able to win, then we’re all down to do that.”
But, believe him or not, winning is not necessarily what Calipari says he’s most passionate about. He just likes being a coach.
“I love it,” Calipari said with a smile. “And let me say this: I love practices, and if we didn’t have these damn games, it would be a beautiful profession.”