Now that Big Blue Madness is over, the real fun begins for John Calipari’s Wildcats.
With 20 hours a week at his disposal, Coach Cal ran his team through two practices on Saturday at the Joe Craft Center. Calipari and his staff were afforded limited amounts of time with the team during the preseason, but now is when the real business takes place.
The morning practice was focused on offense while the afternoon featured a mix of the Dribble Drive and some defensive principles. The afternoon practice is the first time Calipari has worked with his team on defense this year.
Below are observations from the first two practices:
- Every season, Calipari begins with a simple message: Play winning basketball. It seems like such a simple and obvious concept, but for highly touted freshmen that were the focal point of their high school and AAU teams, old habits must be broken and a new mentality must be instilled in them. Instead of running the show by themselves, they now have superstars around them who are just as capable as they are at making a play. “This isn’t about show,” Calipari said. “This is about winning. Every drill we do someone wins and someone loses. It’s about winning.” Moments later, “We’re trying to break barriers every day with what we’re doing,” Calipari said.
- Fans saw a lot of different personalities Friday night at Big Blue Madness, but Calipari told reporters at Media Day that this is actually a quiet team on the court. Several of them have the personalities to be vocal leaders, but it’s going to take some prodding and encouraging from the coaching staff to get them there. The first thing Coach Cal told his players Saturday morning is that they have to talk and be loud. When they moved to a rebounding drill just a few minutes into practice, Calipari told them to yell as they snatched the ball off the glass. “I want to hear your lion, not your lamb,” Calipari said.Cal starts a lot of practices by having the players continuously tip the ball against the glass, alternating hands after two or three taps. Although it’s just for warming up, Saturday’s drill gave me some insight into how far Nerlens Noel has come offensively and how far he could potentially go. As simple as the drill seems to the eye, Noel had trouble continually bouncing off his toes and tipping it back to himself at the rate Calipari wanted him to when he first arrived on campus. Now, he seems more fluid, more in control and more explosive to tip each ball.
- When the Cats were doing the rebounding drill I talked about above, Calipari emphasized that they should grab the ball at their highest jumping point. For giants like Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, that means well above the rim. Stopping practice, Calipari singled out Noel and said, “Do you know where he should really be? By the square. If he can go get the ball that high, how many guys will be with him?” Probably not many, Coach.
- Jarrod Polson pulled up early in the morning and rode on the stationary bike the rest of practice. He returned for the afternoon practice. Also, Twany Beckham did not participate in any activity Saturday because of a back injury. He is day-to-day.
- It’s always entertaining when the coaches and managers bring out the pads and get physical with the players. The idea is to get them to battle for position and play through bumps. The harder the players fight, the more resistance the staff gives. Calipari said at Media Day that he’s worried about the physicality of this team, so I’d expect to see the coaches use the pads a lot more in the early part of the season. “We’re going to do this every day for three minutes,” Calipari said. “You must get low. You must pivot with the ball. You must be strong.”
- One guy Calipari doesn’t have to worry about is Archie Goodwin, who continues to exhibit a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-like mentality. The more competitive the environment gets, the more he rises to the occasion. When the pads were out, Goodwin seemed to bounce off the punishment like he was a running back with shoulder pads and a helmet on.
- Calipari told Noel that if he can just learn to play through the bumps and get his hands on the ball, he can become a huge offensive threat. Calipari said that he’s so fast and so quick off the bounce that the opposition won’t be able to guard him once he faces up to the basket. If they back off, Calipari wants him to shoot it to keep them honest.
- A good chunk of practice was spent on how to run the break, in particular positioning on the court. The premise of the Dribble Drive Motion Offense is to beat your man off the dribble and take it to the hoop as quickly as possible, but none of it works without proper spacing. Based off Saturday’s morning session, there are going to be some growing pains early. Guys weren’t exactly sure where they were supposed to run on more than one occasion. One key thing he wants them to do when they’ve got five guys running together on the break is have two running wide. Generally speaking, he wants Noel and Mays on the opposite side of the ball.
- When it comes to instilling new habits, playing hard the entire time is always a point of emphasis from Calipari. In high school the players could get away with taking a play off, but as many of them learned in the offseason practices, that isn’t acceptable with Coach Cal. “You get nothing out of this if you go half speed,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to learn how to play hard every possession. If you can’t, then learn how to take yourself out of the game. If you want to play longer, then learn how to play hard.”
- Cauley-Stein’s 15-foot jumper looks improved from when he first stepped on campus. Calipari is having Cauley-Stein focus on keeping his shooting hand point towards the basket all the way through his release. He and a couple of other players tend to fade back when they don’t follow through to the basket.
- Since they didn’t scrimmage Saturday morning, the highlight of the practice was the typical 2-on-1 and 2-on-2 full-court drills. The premise of the drill is always the same: Beat the defender at midcourt and take it straight to the hoop. While Calipari doesn’t want them to miss layups, at the very least he doesn’t want them to get their shot blocked. If they can’t make the layup, he wants the shot high off the glass so that the offensive player crashing can tip it or dunk it back in. Points in the 2-on-1 and 2-on-2 games are only awarded on the initial shot or put-back. Once the ball or player hits the ground, the play is over.
- Although Julius Mays has only been on campus a few months, he’s grasped the idea of getting the ball high on the glass. Short in stature, Mays almost never gets his shot blocked and routinely leaves the ball to where it’s either going in or a player is tipping it in. “That’s why we’re the best rebounding team in the country, because we drive and shoot floaters so we allow our bigs to get off their big and rebound the ball,” Calipari said.
- Who could be the biggest beneficiary of all those tip-in and put-back dunks? Alex Poythress. “Alex is going to be the best offensive rebounder in the country,” Coach Cal said. “They’re going to end up having to put two guys on him.” Calipari said something to the effect of every shot attempt is a pass for Poythress.
- Goodwin has probably been the most consistent player in practice, but Calipari is pushing him to make the easy, winning play, not the highlight-reel dunk. “Please don’t tell me you play for the fans,” Calipari said. “You play for us. We’re losing because you keep missing. Instead of trying to dunk the ball, lay it in.”
- Goodwin responded two plays later with a crossover that was so quick that Harrow got twisted up and fell on his back. Goodwin took the easy play and laid it in. Moments later, instead of taking his turn and sitting out when a 2-on-2 game was tied, Goodwin stayed in so his team could win. Cal noticed and praised him for his competitiveness.
- Harrow is starting to get it. On plays where he would almost always try to lay it in himself, he’s giving it up for the lob pass. He’s developed such a crafty layup over the years that he can put a pass just about anywhere he wants to.”
- Calipari ended practice with the five-minute shooting drill. For those that haven’t read one of these reports before, it’s fairly simple. With five minutes on the clock, the players – usually six guards or small forwards – shoot until the buzzer sounds. It was the first time they have done it this year, so I wasn’t expecting any Darius Miller-like numbers (Miller routinely finished with 50 or more, and sometimes approached 70). Wiltjer was consistently hitting in the 60s at the end of last year and made exactly 60 Saturday morning. Mays, who will be counted on heavily to hit shots this season, also nailed 60 in his first-ever five-minute shooting drill. In the afternoon sessions, Wiltjer followed up with 62 makes and Mays hit 60 again. For perspective, Calipari considers 50 a good number and 60 is at an NBA level.
- The afternoon practice started much like the morning practice – with more rebounding and pads. This time Calipari combined the two. After catching the ball off the glass, a coach or manager was on each side of the player and hit him with a pad as he regained his position and went back up. After doing so well with the pads in the morning session, Goodwin had a tougher time in the paint. “He’s not used to that,” Calipari said. “He’s used to that flip shot.”
- Watching the pad work, it’s easy to see how much weight and strength Harrow has added. He still gets bumped around, but where he used to get basically knocked on his butt, Harrow has learned to take the bumps and finish in traffic. Calipari liked what he was seeing so much that he stopped practice, complimented him and had him move to the other side of the court to go against assistant coach Kenny Payne. Let’s just say Payne didn’t take it as easy on Harrow.
- Cauley-Stein did a pretty good job of taking the hits and finishing, but Calipari wants his feet spread wider to create a better foundation. The thinner the base, the easier it is to get knocked off balance.
- The Cats then worked on transitioning from a full-court press to attacking. If my memory serves me right, they didn’t start working on that last season until at least a few weeks into the year. Essentially, Brian Long or Sam Malone serve as the opposing guards and throw the ball away by design against the press. In the snap of a finger, Calipari wants them focusing on getting in the right positions and attacking the basket. Calipari said last year’s group was better at turning defense into points than any other team in the country. Cal said they were a great offensive team last year because they turned their blocks and rebounds into their attack. “We converted from that to this like bang, bang, dunk,” Calipari said.
- I noticed in the afternoon that nearly every offense set they ran, Wiltjer is the trailer. As Calipari said in his preseason Q and A with the media, Wiltjer could play a role similar to what Larry Bird did late in his career. If the Cats push it and nothing is there, they can kick it out to Wiltjer, who can then shoot the 3, pull up for the 15-footer or get into pick-and-roll.
- The second half of practice focused on individual defensive principles, starting with lunges. The players would run in place and wait for assistant coach John Robic’s signal to make a lunge. They did this back and forth from sideline to sideline. The object is to beat your man with the ball to the spot he’s trying to get to. “When they do drive, you’ve got to stay in front, “ Calipari said. “If you can’t lunge, you’re not going to be able to stay in front.” Later, while trying to teach Noel and Cauley-Stein to stick their leg out to lunge, Calipari said, “I know you think it looks goofy, but if you do that, no one is going around you. He’s running into your waist.” Calipari said Cauley-Stein did pretty good for his first day, but he wants him to bend his knees more and get down on defense. Right now he’s playing too straight up.
- Building on the lunges, the players started from underneath the basket, raced to a shooter at the corner of the lane with their hands up, and then lunged diagonally to the baseline. “The advantage we have on every single team is our length,” Calipari said. “We give up our length if their hands are down.” What’s that saying current Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson used to say when he was a broadcaster for ESPN. Ah, yes, “Hand down, man down.” Cal is essentially preaching the same thing.
- Teaching the proper defensive stance to his players, Calipari told them that one foot should be set slightly back from the other foot when they square up. No matter which way the ball handler drives, the defender must move his back foot first. “If you get beat on the dribble, you’re coming out,” Coach Cal said. “I can’t play you if you can’t defend. You’ll figure out how to guard because you’ll want to play.”
- After the defensive drills, Calipari informed them that they’ll be doing the same defensive stuff they’re doing today at the end of the year because it’s the foundation for everything else they do.
- The treat of the afternoon was the one-on-one battles. With essentially a whole new cast, there were some interesting matchups.
- Harrow vs. Goodwin was a pretty good one. Goodwin was physical with Harrow, but he is also fast enough to keep up with him. After Harrow stepped back and sunk a couple of jumpers, Calipari told Goodwin to make him drive. Against other teams, if the offensive player gets past Goodwin, he will have to deal with UK’s length inside.
- Noel showed nice touch around the rim, particularly with his jump hook against Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer, but you could tell that two full practices on top of Big Blue Madness was starting to tire him out. Calipari challenged him to fight through the fatigue. “Make him stay out there for 10 minutes,” Calipari said. “He’s getting tired.”
- For my money, the Wiltjer-Poythress matchup was actually the most entertaining because it featured the sheer physicality of Poythress on the defensive end against the craftiness and skill of Wiltjer. Wiltjer got the better of Poythress several times because he can hold his own in the post a lot better after a year in the strength and conditioning program. He can move defenders with his back to the basket, and once he gets close enough, he can go to that hook shot that is nearly impossible to block.
- The Cats wrapped up with another five-minute shooting drill before Calipari let them go for the evening. With another two practices slated for Sunday, Calipari didn’t say much other than they’ve got a long ways to go. Being that it’s only Oct. 13, there are a lot of reasons to feel good about this year’s team.