John Calipari blows his whistle and shouts out a play. The point guard, Ryan Harrow, listens to the call and echoes it his teammates.
There’s a problem.
Jarrod Polson, the guy who is guarding him, has been running the same play for two-and-a-half weeks as well. He knows exactly what Harrow is going to do and where he’s going to go. The object is to play defense like they always do, but when you know what’s going to happen, tendencies to get a jumpstart begin to develop.
“It’s tough playing against each other every day,” graduate student transfer Julius Mays said. “Every day we know the plays, so guys cheat and it’s hard to execute.”
At last, the Kentucky Wildcats will finally get to play someone other than themselves. Finally, they will face a team that doesn’t know the offense and what they are running.
“It’ll be fun to actually play against somebody else for once,” Mays said, smiling at the thought of breaking up the daily grind of practices.
Kentucky opens a brief two-game exhibition season Thursday at 7 p.m. at Rupp Arena against Northwood, last year’s NAIA runner-up. The Cats will play their second exhibition game on Monday before opening the regular season next Friday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Head coach: Rollie Massimino (171-37 at Northwood)
Ranking: NAIA preseason No. 1
Player to watch: Masse Doumbe (20 points, 14 rebounds vs. Michigan State on Tuesday)
Series history: First meeting
“We’re very anxious (to start),” said sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, the most experienced returning piece from last season’s national title team. “The last couple of days we’ve been scrimmaging, kind of getting a feel for how we’re going to be playing. We’re excited for the game, not only to play a game so that we can learn more about our team.”
“I’m real excited,” freshman forward Alex Poythress said. “It’s my first game, first chance to show the fans what we’re made of, show them how good we can be and just how we’re going to work.”
Coach Cal is anxious to get started, but not quite as quickly as his players. Nineteen days removed from Big Blue Madness, he has a pretty good indication of what his team can and can’t do, and what it can’t do has him a little worried.
He’s been experimenting with different lineups over the last couple of scrimmages, including a twin-tower lineup with Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, but he’s yet to draw any conclusions from the tinkering. The one conclusion he can make so far is that his team is nowhere close to where it needs to be defensively.
“I’m just trying to watch tape and see what I’m comfortable with and those kind(s) of things,” Calipari said. “We’ve just got a long way to go. Defensively, we’re just awful right now. We don’t stay in front of everybody and we got guys stopping left and right and think it’s OK or, ‘It wasn’t my man.’ Stuff like that.”
In that regard, Northwood will be a welcome sight for Calipari and his team. Despite losing by 28 to Michigan State on Tuesday night – the Spartans are ranked No. 14 in the country, mind you – the Seahawks pack a legitimate exhibition punch.
Guided by Rollie Massimino, the head coach of one of the greatest underdog national championship stories of all-time (the 1985 Villanova NCAA champions), Northwood is ranked No. 1 to start the NAIA season. Under Massimino’s direction, the Seahawks have totaled a 171-37 record over the last six years.
Yes, Michigan State eventually flexed its muscles against the smaller Northwood team, but the Seahawks trailed by just six at halftime and hit nine 3-pointers for the game. Masse Doumbe, who totaled 20 points and 14 rebounds, will also present an interesting matchup inside.
“The greatest thing about playing a team like this … is that the weaknesses or the things we’re not doing well will be glaring,” Coach Cal said. “As much as I don’t like to play a team this good this early, this is going to be great for this team because the more I’m watching tape, the more I’m seeing they’ve got to change and they’ve got to understand that it’s got to be a habit.”
Habits are hard to develop right now for this young group because everything is so new to the players. Many of them are experiencing a college preseason for the first time, and that preseason has included a lot of experimentation of lineups.
Calipari doesn’t know who he will start Thursday, adding that “it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who’s going to finish.” But in scrimmages on Sunday and Monday, Calipari used four different starting lineups in four five-minute segments each day.
“We’re trying to figure out when these guys are in the game together, how do we play?” Coach Cal said.
The different combos don’t always translate into fluid basketball.
“We’re still learning every day,” Mays said. “He’s been putting in multiple combinations of people and we’re learning multiple spots, so I wouldn’t say the offense is real crisp right now.”
The players understand that it isn’t even November yet, and Wiltjer said they went through the same type of experimentation and bumps in the road last year. Of course, we all know how that turned out.
“I think it’s more hard work than patience,” Calipari said. “I think it’s more of a focus on what you’re doing than patience. I think it’s more taking caring of your body, getting rest, taking care of business off the court, no distractions, let’s go. We don’t have time for that. That’s what’s going to get us to where we want to go. The one guy that has to have patience is me. That will only go so far with me, I know.”
After all the prodding from former coach Joe B. Hall, Calipari has warmed up to the idea of playing Noel and Cauley-Stein together and told reporters that he would play them at the same time at some point Tuesday.
For a team that Calipari described as “awful” defensively right now, the twin-tower lineup may be the best remedy for the time being. When Calipari sticks those two out there, it allows lengthy but athletic players like Poythress and Archie Goodwin to play aggressively and force the offense into traffic.
“Why wouldn’t we bring people to us?” Coach Cal said. “You don’t want to block your own man’s shot. You’re trying to block your teammate’s shot — his man, not your man. You body him and let us block and there’s enough guys on the court that can do that, disrupt shots.”
The one restriction when the two bigs are on the floor: One must always be in the paint.
“If Nerlens is out on the floor, (Cauley-Stein), get in the lane,” Calipari said. “I don’t care where your man is. If you’re out on the floor, Nerlens, you get in the lane. So you’re always going to have someone like 7-foot standing near the goal. And then you tell the other guys, ‘Make them drive.’ How about that for genius basketball?”
It’s all a process at the beginning of the year and nothing is close to certain. This is the part of the job – experimenting and teaching young men – that Calipari enjoys as much as anything, but this year has been a little more draining because this team is even newer than the rest.
The regular season hasn’t even started and Coach Cal said he’s already done more individual meetings with his players than any of his other teams at Kentucky.
“I think we will be good in time,” Calipari said. “We’re just – it’s kind of scary. Us getting dinged is not the worst thing, I’m telling you, for these guys to understand you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to create habits. You don’t have them right now.”