Video of Cal’s presser at the bottom
Printed in bold above a window in John Calipari’s office reads three simple words that the Kentucky coach is leaning on during a week like this: Coach Your Team.
Hours after officially regaining the nation’s top ranking in both major polls, Calipari is following his own advice and coaching like it’s business as usual. He said he’ll address the new rankings with his team for “two or three seconds” and talk about the “badge of honor” it is to carry the No. 1 beside the Kentucky name, but after that it’s on to Georgia, Tuesday’s night’s 9 p.m. opponent in Athens, Ga.
The outside distractions of being the top team in the land, Calipari said he’ll pay no attention to them.
“Because it’s here (at Kentucky), it wasn’t a big deal,” Calipari said. “Whether we’re one or two or 10, that’s what it is to play here.”
Kentucky is always near the center of attention in college basketball, but even for the greatest tradition in college basketball, things are noticeably different outside the team circle when you’re No. 1.
At Coach Cal’s typical pregame media opportunity Monday, the usual media contingent of 15 to 20 reporters seemed like it was 25 to 30. Where there’s normally four or five cameras resting on tripods to record Calipari’s 10-minute Q and A, there were nine on Monday.
What: No. 1/1 UK (19-1, 5-0 SEC) vs. Georgia (10-9, 1-4 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Stegeman Coliseum (10,523)
Game notes: UK
Record: 10-9, 1-4 in SEC
Head coach: Mark Fox (45-28 at Georgia)
Player to watch: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.7 points, 5.1 rebounds)
Series history: UK leads 113-25
Last meeting: UK won 66-60 on Jan. 29, 2011
All eyes are on you when you’re at the top.
“I was just trying to get a hold of (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim,” Calipari said. “I was so mad at him. It’s just an added thing.”
As a coach who has guided three different teams (Massachusetts, Memphis and UK) to a No. 1 ranking, Calipari understands the added pressure that comes with the national target.
Take, for instance, Tuesday’s matchup at Georgia. The Bulldogs are off to a 10-9 overall start, 1-4 in the Southeastern Conference, but Stegeman Coliseum, which hasn’t been sold out all season, is expected to be filled to the rafters.
“Georgia had Vanderbilt beat at Vandy,” Calipari said. “I don’t know if they need anything added.”
Calipari is 44-7 lifetime as the coach of the top team in the country, and this is the third time he’s guided the Wildcat program to the top spot, including the second time this season. UK previously carried the No. 1 ranking this season in late November and early December. The Cats defeated St. John’s and North Carolina before losing on a buzzer beat at Indiana.
Asked what they could learn from that first experience as the nation’s top team, Calipari said he didn’t remember because it was a while ago.
“Someone beat us and we could barely get out of the building,” Calipari said.
In talking with the players on Monday, they seemed to welcome the idea of the No. 1 ranking being a badge of honor.
“I love the pressure because it’s just a part of me,” freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said, adding that it doesn’t affect how they game plan or approach the game.
Kidd-Gilchrist expects the position will bring out the best in their opponents, but “that’s every game.”
“It’s what comes with it,” sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. “Every team wants to beat you, especially away games.”
In terms of national pressure, Jones said he knew what he was getting into when he decided to attend UK. Playing under the spotlight of the No. 1 ranking is a reason why kids like Jones decide to sign with Coach Cal and Kentucky.
But as Calipari has said before, it’s not for everyone. Not everyone can handle being No. 1 and making the necessary team sacrifices to carry such a badge of honor.
“Normally they’ll let you know,” Calipari said. “They’ll say I’m not interested because you’ll paint the picture. I’ve had kids I’ve really wanted and kids I wasn’t sure of but that kid convinced me that I could do this and the other kid was shaky. … You don’t know until they’re in there doing it. You’re hoping that we’ve pegged the kids that we think can deal with all this stuff.”
Kentucky has lost its preview two road games as the No. 1 team (at Indiana in December and at South Carolina in 2010), and the program, almost unbelievably, hasn’t held on to the top ranking for more than three weeks since the 1977-78 season.
If that trend holds true, Calipari doesn’t necessarily think it will be a bad thing for his team in the long run.
“The way this is going, we probably need a loss so that we’ll come together and say we’re not losing like this, in other words, getting manhandled.” Calipari said. “That’s enough, because we’re getting manhandled and winning close games so they think it’s OK. My thing is let’s take one on the chin then. Now what you going to do? Are you going to say it’s OK? I don’t think they’ll say it’s OK.”
(Video produced by Adam Warner)