It’s hard to believe, but the Cats have already had 12 practices since opening the season at Big Blue Madness.
They practiced twice a day last Saturday and Sunday and twice a day again this weekend. In between the weekend workouts, they practiced four times during the week.
After some early growing pains, it’s fairly obvious that John Calipari has another supremely talented team. They’re as young as ever and have even more to learn than his previous three UK teams, but the pieces are there to have yet another special team.
Below are my notes and observations of improvement from Sunday evening’s practice.
- If you remember back to last Sunday’s video report from Calipari, he said he was “depressed” after the morning workout and “inspired” by his team’s resolve in the afternoon session. By no means have the practices been perfect since, but they have been pretty good. It seemed like the players needed a little bit of an eye-opener last Sunday to make them realize that they have to bring it every day at Kentucky.
- Twany Beckham has returned from his back injury and is not making life easy for Alex Poythress. Calipari has been on Poythress to play hard all the time, but nobody in the first week made him pay the price for taking plays off when he gets tired. Beckham has changed that. Embracing his role as a defensive stopper, Beckham has been all over Poythress and made things extremely difficult for him. He’s physical and is forcing Poythress to step his game up.
- Why has Calipari been so hard on Poythress recently? Because of dunks like Sundays. After missing a transition layup, he stayed with the play, got his own rebound and threw down a two-hand cram on Jarrod Polson. He did one better 10 minutes later in some one-on-one action with Kyle Wiltjer, throwing down a nasty one-hand slam on Kyle Wiltjer’s head. Both were good, but the second one gets my nod because Wiltjer was trying to block Poythress’ shot. When he decides he’s taking it to the basket and wants to dunk it, I don’t know that there is any player in the nation that can stop him without fouling him really hard. He’s that strong. Poythress has shown a lot of those flashes, but Calipari wants to see those on a consistent basis. By the way, his dunk on Wiltjer earned him Sunday’s “Helmet Dunk” award.
- The dreaded treadmill is back in the corner of the gym. If a player isn’t giving it his hardest or loses in certain drills, they get so many seconds on the treadmill going about 10 miles per hour. Coach Cal will often have strength and conditioning coach Mike Malone turn it on just as a motivational tool. It’s funny how the hum of a treadmill can make the players go just a little bit harder.
- Really love this quote Calipari used Sunday (and talks about in the video above): “Let’s sweat today so we don’t have to bleed tomorrow.”
- After Archie Goodwin fired a dart at Willie Cauley-Stein, Coach Cal pointed out that not every big is going to be able to catch those passes because Cauley-Stein played wide receiver in high school. “You’re throwing it to the leading receiver in Kansas,” Calipari said. “You threw a rocket at him. If you would have thrown that at Nerlens, he wouldn’t have caught it.” Noel actually has a football pedigree as well and was laughing as Goodwin tried to explain that Noel can catch the ball as well.
- It’s only been a week, but Calipari has already installed a lot of the basic concepts and sets for his Dribble Drive Motion Offense. Calipari doesn’t run nearly as many plays as some other coaches – as he likes to say, he’s teaching basketball, not plays – but it’s amazing to me how much the players have to soak in and how fast they pick it up. There’s no time to take mental breaks in Calipari’s practices.
- I’ve said it over and over again in these practice reports, but I’m going to say it again: Julius Mays just knows how to score. He doesn’t have the look of your typical Coach Cal player at Kentucky, but his previous experience in college has served him well. He does the little things to get open or get a shot over taller and more athletic players, and he rarely misses a shot when given space. He’s also starting to fill that leadership void created by the graduation of Darius Miller. During Saturday morning’s practice, after running Goodwin ragged in a five-on-five drill, Mays showed Goodwin what he was doing against him to get open and how Goodwin could combat it. After practice ended, Mays spent another minute with him showing him the proper technique to fight through a screen.
- By the way, Mays’ smart play is what makes his practice matchup with Goodwin so intriguing. Goodwin should be able to beat him on nearly every play because of his athletic superiority, but Mays gives Goodwin a good fight play in and play out. They both play to their strengths, and both of those strengths are very different.
- Calipari has said before that he doesn’t like to do conditioning-only drills in practice because his practices are already tailored to work on conditioning while practicing basketball. His “progression” drill is a perfect example. Progression begins as a 2-on-1 drill and ends 5-on-5 with teams alternating possessions. The drill is designed to work on transition offense and defense, but it’s also a great conditioning drills. Once Calipari blows his whistle for it to begin, it’s essentially a non-stop sprint for the next couple of minutes until they finish with 5-on-5.
- Noel could be a great passing big man. He threw a pretty nifty backdoor feed to a cutting Jon Hood for a layup during the progression drill and then later threw a laser through traffic for Harrow to hoist a 3.
- It isn’t just about playing hard when you play for Calipari, it’s about playing harder than your opponent. “Am I playing harder than the guy I’m going against?” Calipari said. “Look at the guy next to you and think I’m going to play harder than this dude. If we have that mentality in practice, we’ll play harder than our opponents. He’s playing really good. Great, then I have to play even better and step on him.”
- Calipari was really encouraged with the defensive intensity of his players Sunday evening, particularly with their ability to scramble and play team defense. “I’m like any other college coach,” Calipari said. “There are times I get discouraged and I say we’re not beating anybody and then there are other times like today when I look at this and say, ‘Oh my, we could be really good.’ It’s up to you to form the right habits to make sure we’re a really good team. … We have players here that can do things normal college players can’t. Now it’s up to you to form good habits, play winning basketball and play team basketball.”
- Calipari is telling Goodwin that he has to change speeds in order to utilize his speed. If he’s going in the same gear the whole time, Calipari said his quickness isn’t as effective. When he changes gears, his speed often catches the defender off guard. “When you slow down sometimes, your speed hurts (Mays),” Coach Cal said. “When you play fast all the time, your speed hurts you.”
- The Cats finished practice with a short scrimmage (two four-minute halves). The White team featured Harrow, Goodwin, Poythress, Wiltjer and Cauley-Stein. The Blue team had Polson, Mays, Beckham, Hood and Noel. I would not look too much into the lineups. The White won the scrimmage 20-8. Wiltjer led all scorers with nine points, but Harrow looked very good running the point.
- The highlight of the scrimmage, at least for me, was seeing Cauely-Stein run the floor and nearly posterize Noel. Running at full speed as though he was playing football again in Kansas, the 7-footer got the ball on a fast-break and tried to sky over Noel. After getting dunked on at Big Blue Madness, Noel wasn’t having it this time and fouled him hard. Calipari was so thrilled with Cauley-Stein’s ability to run the floor and his newfound aggressiveness that he shook his head in disbelief.