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Practice report: Preventing midseason lull, Coach Cal ups intensity level

Continuing our periodical practice reports throughout the season, here are some observations from Monday’s two-hour session at the Joe Craft Center:

  • Before we dive into practice specifics, first a little background on the evolution of practice over the last few weeks: Since the last time we’ve done a practice report, the Wildcats have been participating in “Camp Cal,” an academic-free, basketball heavy period over the holiday break. Without classes, tutors or a limit on practice time, Calipari has been putting his players through two and sometimes three practices a day. The only break was the three-day off period for Christmas after the Loyola (Md.) game. With classes starting on Wednesday and a travel day Tuesday, Monday was essentially the last day of Camp Cal. The Cats went through individual workouts in the morning before a two-hour team workout in the afternoon. The team was off Sunday for the first time in awhile.
  • Coach Cal was on the floor earlier than usual Tuesday to watch the players warm up and shoot. Not liking what he was seeing early, he huddled up the guys at midcourt and talked to the players about taking the next step. To get there, Calipari repeated something he told his players at the beginning of the season: No matter how they’re feeling, they have to find a way to bring it in practice every day. Calipari said that the second he sees someone taking off a play in practice or doing something sloppy, they were heading to the baseline to sprint. “It’s your responsibility every day you come here to be ready to go,” Calipari said.
  • Twany Beckham, who missed Saturday’s game with a stomach illness, was back at practice Monday.
  • Monday’s session began with a run-through of UK’s press attack. The Cats have struggled with turnovers of late because of lazy passes. Calipari said they’re leaving their feet too often. “It’s not what it looks like,” Calipari said. “It’s how we complete the pass.”
  • Calipari doesn’t put his team through a lot of sprints – as he’s said before, if they’re going all out in practice, they’re already going through conditioning – but the Cats ran five consecutive all-out sprints early in practice to work on getting back on defense. The Cats had three seconds – three!!! – to get from the baseline to the opposite free-throw line. Believe me, it’s as hard as it sounds. Only on the fifth and final time did the players, sprinting as hard as they can, make it. “Whether it’s defense to offense or offense to defense, this is how you run,” Calipari said. “The first three steps are the most important. We’ve got to have everybody in the timeout saying, ‘Did you see how fast he’s running?’”
  • Calipari was on his team about their toughness, so they did a rebounding drill to foster some. As one of the assistants is taking a shot, the player would quickly sprint to a manager with a pad, aggressively box him out and then try to rebound the ball above the rim with two hands. “What happens when you get above the rim, Anthony?” Calipari said. “Is there anybody up there with you? Go above the rim and we’ll get balls. Only a few guys in the NBA can rebound above the rim.”
  • As you can tell with what’s been written so far, it seemed like there was a concentrated effort by the coaching staff to up the intensity level in practice Monday and reinvigorate the guys (assistant coach John Robic was as vocal as I’ve heard him all year. This is just my opinion, but this is an easy time of the year to fall into the lull of the season. It’s halfway through the year, practice has been going non-stop for three months and guys are beat up. Even so, Calipari said they can’t afford to take a break or let their guard down at this time of the year. “You ought to be jacked up to be in this gym,” Calipari said. “Some guys (on other teams) are saying, ‘I’ve only got two months left of this and I’m done.’ That’s not us. We should be loving this. We’re not trying to get this over.” By the end of practice, by my estimation, it was one of the better practices of the year.
  • Moments after those comments from Coach Cal, Eloy Vargas responded. “Here’s what I like right now. I’ve never seen Eloy run like this,” Calipari said. “He’s about to throw up. He knows he got minutes last game and he didn’t look like he belonged in the game. He knows it. So now he comes out today and knows he has to bring it. He knows if I see it, I’m not playing you. You earn your minutes.”
  • The coaching staff hasn’t been too pleased with how they’ve defended ball screens of late, so there was a short but concentrated emphasis on defensive technique Monday. If the player chooses to go over top the screener, Calipari wants him to get over in front of the ball handler quicker and square up. Too often the Cats are getting through ball screens but chasing their man afterwards. The coaches want the players to get over the screens and get in front of their man before the ball handler can drive. Those lunges we talked about in earlier practice reports, this is where they come into play.
  • During a five-on-five half-court drill, Calipari pleaded with his players not to foul once a player gets into the lane. If someone like Marquis Teague forces the ball handler into UK’s shot blockers, Calipari said to let the shot blockers swat the shot and take off to the other side of the court.
  • Speaking of Teague, Calipari told him to take the open jumper if teams give it to him. “I have confidence in you, Marquis,” Calipari said. “You’re not playing for jumpers, but if they give it to you, take them.”
  • One thing we fail to recognize in the development of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the daily training he receives from playing against the likes of Darius Miller every day in practice. Generally speaking, when the Cats are running five-on-five drills, Miller guards Kidd-Gilchrist and vice versa. When you’re going against a four-year starter at Kentucky – the reigning Southeastern Conference Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, I might add – there is no better on-the-job training. The battles between the two are relentless.
  • The Cats spent a good 15-20 minutes working on their press attack in the second half of practice. Coach Cal was very impressed with Teague’s composure and I didn’t see him make a single turnover during the entire drill. Calipari said some of the turnovers in recent games haven’t been his fault; rather guys aren’t in the correct position. If that happens in future games, Calipari told him to take a timeout. Calipari also told his team that if Teague gets them the ball and they’re in the right position, they should have no more than a few dribbles for a wide open lane and dunk. Teams are so set on getting back and preventing the lob pass to Anthony Davis that they’re leaving the paint open. “They don’t want to come out because he’s smashing balls,” Calipari said.
  • As always, UK went through its normal five-minute shooting drill (six players, three on each side of the court, shoot as many 3-pointers as they can in five minutes), but this time they did it after running three-second sprints. As they were shooting, Calipari told Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague to stop leaning back on their shots. Miller, as he often does, made the most, sinking 68 shots. Calipari was impressed but wondered why Miller passes up shots during the game when he’s proven time and time again he can knock them down.
  • Only six players usually participate in the five-minute shooting drill while the bigs work on post moves off to the sides. Terrence Jones is usually in the shooters group, but he hasn’t been the last few practices, including Monday. My guess is that’s to get him to redevelop that aggression that he had at the beginning of the season. Calipari has said a couple of times that Jones isn’t dunking it enough.
  • Calipari likes the easy pass, but even he couldn’t complain with one of the best passes I’ve seen this season by Teague. As Teague blew past his man and Vargas came over to help at the rim, Teague, in full sprint, bounced a no-look pass backwards to a streaking Davis for a two-hand dunk. My words can’t do the pass justice, but it was pretty.
  • Just because the Cats have started to make free throws doesn’t mean Calipari is going to stop doing the end-of-practice free-throw sprints. For every free throw the Cats miss, they’re running 33-second suicides. Last game the Wildcats missed six, so they were due six sprints Monday. Cutting them a favor, Coach Cal gave each player who missed a free throw last game a chance to make one this time for a chance to eliminate one of the sprints.“Since we started running, have we missed free throws?” Calipari said. “We were second-to-last in our league before we started running and now we’re the best in our league. You want to know why? Because you dudes don’t want to run. We have the ability to be the best free-throw shooting team in the country.”