In a video message to the Big Blue Nation on Sunday, John Calipari told fans he has started to tinker with lineups for the first time in an extended scrimmage setting.
The mad scientist was so intrigued by the different looks that he experimented again Monday.
After going through drills for the first hour of practice, Coach Cal brought in referees for the second straight day and had his team scrimmage for the second half of practice. The scrimmage was split up into four five-minute segments, each one featuring a different lineup.
Below are some observations and notes from the scrimmage only.
- Former coach Joe B. Hall must have heard Coach Cal was messing with his two big men idea because he was at practice Monday to watch. I was on the viewing deck above Hall, so I couldn’t see his reaction once Calipari used it again, but I’m sure it put a smile on his face. If you can recall, Hall has been in Coach Cal’s ear about using Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein together. During last week’s episode of “All-Access Kentucky,” Hall was seen at Wheeler Pharmacy showing how to use two big men with ketchup and mustard bottles.
- Coach Cal has tossed out some ideas that he’s never used before, but the twin tower look is more than just an idea at this point; it’s looking like a very real possibility. For the second day in a row, Calipari played Noel and Cauley-Stein together in the fourth and final segment of the scrimmage. Those two played alongside Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays, creating a physically intimidating and imposing lineup. The big lineup dominated again, defeating the other team 16-7. Granted, the other lineup featured Jon Hood at the four and Kyle Wiltjer at the five, but it was still an impressive performance.
- If there is one concern with a big lineup, it’s how the Cats match up defensively with smaller, quicker players. I don’t think that would a problem with this group. Cauley-Stein and Noel are certainly towering trees, but they’re not your traditional bigs. Cauely-Stein may be the fastest 7-footer I’ve ever seen, and Noel has guard-like bounce and quickness to him. In other words, they can defend the wings. Throw in Goodwin and Poythress’ raw athleticism and speed and you’ve got a defensive lineup that could be the best in the country.
- Although Noel and Cauley-Stein are both active and can defend outside the paint, Calipari heeded Hall’s advice and told them that he never wants to see both of them guarding out on the floor at the same time. As Calipari told his team, if one of them is always in the paint, it means everyone else can put pressure on the ball and force the ball handler to dribble into the trees.
- You may remember Calipari said Sunday in the video that he went “bonkers” when his big lineup didn’t rebound the ball. As Coach Cal said in the video, how is he supposed to play a big lineup if they don’t rebound? What he left out is that Hood grabbed two of the three offensive boards on Sunday, and he grabbed another big one on Monday. Calipari blew his whistle again and yelled, “How do we not rebound?!” Assistant coach Orlando Antigua lightened the mood when he yelled back, “Because Hoodie is a rebounding machine!” In all seriousness, Hood is doing everything he can to earn minutes and insert himself into the eighth spot in the rotation. He’s looked a lot more confident since the Blue-White Scrimmage.
- As for the offense of the big lineup, can you say Lob City? With Goodwin running the point and three athletic bigs to throw it to, it could produce even more lob dunks than last year. I emphasize could because Calipari is still very much in the experimental stage. With Mays in the lineup, you’ve still got a great shooter, and Goodwin and Poythress give you two guys who can create off the dribble.
- Using the treadmill as motivation, both Goodwin and Poythress were the scoring stars of the scrimmage. Calipari told both of them that if they don’t play hard all the time, they would head to the treadmill to run (specifically, Coach Cal told Goodwin he had to grab at least five rebounds and Poythress had to come up with five offensive boards). Both had to visit it at one point during Monday’s practice, although Goodwin’s punishment was for not hitting a certain mark in the five-minute shooting drill (more on the five-minute shooting drill at the end). Goodwin totaled 16 points in the 20 minutes of scrimmage time and Poythress finished with 12. Poythress did most of his damage with the big lineup.
- Goodwin thrived because of his speed. He routinely killed his man off the dribble whether it was against Harrow, Polson or practice player Tod Lanter. He showed a surprisingly good “Euro step” on a one-on-one transition opportunity that completely froze Polson, and he even demonstrated an understanding for the point-guard position by throwing a couple of really nice lob passes to Noel when the help-side defenders slid over.
- Poythress had a good scrimmage because he had his motor going nearly the entire time. When he plays hard from whistle to whistle, he may be UK’s best overall player. It’s keeping the fire going the entire time that remains his biggest challenge. Poythress is definitely listening to what Calipari has been teaching him about jump stops. Because teams are going to try to take charges against him, Coach Cal has been drilling him to use a jump stop before exploding to the basket. Poythress executed it to perfection Monday, leading to a handful of powerful dunks.
- The dunk of the practice goes to Noel on a feed from Goodwin. Goodwin split the defense and then lobbed it up to Noel when help came over. The pass was slightly behind him, but it actually set up perfectly for Noel to catch it as he cocked his hand back for a powerful one-hand cram.
- Speaking of Noel’s offensive game, boy has it come a long ways. Maybe it was just a really good day or maybe he’s making that big of strides, but I couldn’t even tell who Noel was offensively compared to the guy we saw last week at the Blue-White Scrimmage. Yes, he still has a long way to go, but he’s not at the other end of the tunnel like he was when he walked on campus. He has really developed a great technique to seal off his defender and get the ball on the block. He still isn’t dominant with his back to the basket, but he’s added a couple of good, quick moves once he gets it in the post. What’s most impressive is he’s developed a pretty reliable jump hook off that great bounce he has. Noel had 10 points during the scrimmages.
- Noel and Cauley-Stein are great passers, especially when they get the ball at the top of the key. Calipari said they’re both “willing passers.” Noel was particularly impressive. “If he sees the back of your guy’s head, he’s throwing it,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to go hard and get there because he’s throwing it anyways.”
- One thing I haven’t seen either of the two bigs do in a long time is take a jump shot. They both have the ability to hit the 15-footer, but they haven’t tried it recently. It may be that they don’t need to, but both have really focused on going at each other on the block.
- Remember the stories about Coach Cal bringing in a communications expert to talk with the guys about body language last week? There’s a reason he brought him (Steve Shenbaum) in. Whether it’s youth, habit or personality-driven, this team struggles with criticism. Guys tend to get down on themselves and put their heads down when Calipari tells them something. Coach Cal has told them over and over again not to listen to how loud he is but what he is saying. “It’s OK to be wrong,” Calipari said to Goodwin on Monday. “It’s OK to look stupid sometimes. Just play.” To break Poythress of the head-hanging habit, he’s sent to the treadmill every time he gives off the wrong body language. The motive seems to be working.
- I thought Ryan Harrow played pretty well in Monday’s scrimmage after a recent lull. Calipari is trying to get him to understand his role and to play to his strength. “You’ve either got to be a pit bull or play with energy,” Calipari told him again Monday. Can you guess which one Harrow should be?
- This just in: Wiltjer can still shoot. And he hasn’t forgot how to shoot that hook. He was money on Monday when he decided to launch a shot.
- For what it’s worth, Noel won two of the three tips when he and Cauley-Stein went head to head. The fourth time they were on the same team.
- One thing I want to make note of that wasn’t in the scrimmage were two more impressive five-minute shooting performances from Mays and Wiltjer. Mays hit 66 3-pointers in the allotted time and Wiltjer nailed 63. For those who are new here, 50 is considered a pretty good mark and 60 or above is at an NBA level. Poythress hit a personal high of 47, hitting 13 in a row at one point. The improvement means he has to do it more often now. “He’s shown he has it,” Calipari said. “You just have to be thinking positive. You talk about me believing in you; you’ve got to believe in yourself.”