The year 2012 was a memorable one for John Calipari.
It ended with the first national championship in Coach Cal’s career, the eighth in school history, and six NBA Draft picks, a modern era draft record.
It could take a backseat to 2013 if things go according to Calipari’s plan.
“This could end up being my most rewarding year,” Coach Cal said Monday. “That’s my whole mindset. I don’t think about anything else. It’s not like, ‘Well, what if this happens and we don’t do as well (acts like he’s crying).’ I don’t do that. That doesn’t enter my mind. My mind is this kid is going to be great and it’s going to be my most rewarding year as a coach. I don’t know what that means at the end, numbers wise, but that’s my hope.”
So far, 2013 doesn’t look like it will repeat the 2012 season. The Cats, at 8-4, have already lost more games than the 2011-12 team before the calendar has turned to the second half of this season. UK is 58th in the RPI and out of both major polls.
But when you consider where a team starts at the beginning of the year and how far it has to go, this could be Calipari’s most rewarding team by season’s end, he says.
“When you go through a season, you don’t judge it just by wins and losses,” Coach Cal said. “You don’t judge it just by championships. You judge it by what was accomplished by a team and how far they’ve come. That team two years ago, that was a rewarding year for me. For me to walk away from that, I could say I gave every ounce of everything I had and these kids responded and they benefited. Not just me benefiting, they benefited.”
As Coach Cal wished everyone a Happy New Year’s on Monday, he reflected on 2012 and hoped 2013 would be just as rewarding.
“Heck of a year for this program, for our staff, for me and my family,” Calipari said. “I can tell you that. Let’s hope that this year becomes as rewarding. And rewarding is all relevant. To me, this could be at the end of the day my most rewarding year as a coach. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
What: UK (8-4) vs. Eastern Michigan (7-5)
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Eastern Michigan
Feature: Cal zeroing in on Poythress to bring out the beast in him
Video interviews: Cal, Harrow, Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer
Eastern Michigan File
Head coach: Rob Murphy (21-23 at Eastern Michigan)
Player to watch: Daylen Harrison (10.8 points, 6.2 rebounds)
Series history: First meeting
Oddly enough, for as little as it mattered in the final outcome, all the talk the day after Kentucky’s 80-77 loss to Louisville was the controversial “switcheroo” at the free-throw line at the end of the first half.
With 1:05 remaining in the first half, UK freshman forward Alex Poythress drove the baseline, dished to Nerlens Noel and a foul was called.
Initially, the foul was called on Louisville’s Russ Smith, sending Noel to the line. As the players lined up, Poythress appeared to whisper something in Noel’s ear and then took his place at the foul line as the refs looked back to the Kentucky bench and discussed the call.
Without hesitation or referee’s interference, Poythress shot the free throw instead of Noel.
If you listen to critics the day after, Calipari arranged a free-throw fix. On Monday, Coach Cal laughed at such a ludicrous claim.
“If I thought the wrong guy was at the line, I would get him off the line,” Calipari said. “I’ve said to officials, and I can’t remember who the official (was), if I saw it off of our man and they gave us the ball, I would say, ‘You missed that. That went the other way.’ And the official will stop and say ‘Thank you, that’s this way.’ I’ve done that before. I’m not trying to gain an advantage.”
The fact that Poythress was the one who shot the free throws when he was struggling so much seems to debunk the conspiracy theory. For the record, Smith was still charged with the foul.
“I thought (Poythress) got fouled, and that’s why I said, ‘Why are you at the line?’ ” Coach Cal said. “I thought the wrong guy was at the line, which I’m not going to let them do. Now why would I put Alex at the line, when he couldn’t even – he couldn’t make any shots? I would put him at the line? I would’ve had more confidence in Nerlens at that point.”
Kentucky didn’t just leave points at the free-throw line Saturday, it likely cost the Wildcats the game.
The Cats made just 11-of-23 shots at the line, missing several key opportunities down the stretch as they cut into Louisville’s 17-point lead and made it a game.
As a team, UK is shooting 63.3 percent from the line, which ranks 302nd in the country. If the season were to end today, the percentage would rank as the worst mark by at UK team since the 1986-87 season.
A day after missing several of the free throws down the stretch, freshman Willie Cauley-Stein was ordered by Calipari to get in the gym and shoot 100 to 200 free throws a day.
“We were in there for an hour shooting free throws (Sunday),” Cauley-Stein said. “I plan on doing the same today right after this, right after practice, so I’m going to get them down so next time it doesn’t happen.”
Cauley-Stein said after Saturday’s game that he was caught between his old free-throw shooting motion and a new one the coaches have him working on in which he starts his motion higher.
“It’s definitely a mental thing,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve always been a good free-throw shooter and right now it’s definitely a mental thing and I’ve just got to find a positive in every negative that I’ve done and figure out how to make it work.”
Cauely-Stein said he felt pressure once he missed the first couple and it snowballed from there.
“Absolutely, especially when you’re in a rival crowd and it gets wild you feel the vibrations from all the people,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s really overwhelming.”
The right to lead
As the general of the offense and the player who controls the ball more than any other position, the point-guard position is naturally one that requires a leadership role.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow lost those privileges when he missed two weeks in November because of an illness and an issue to tend to with his family back home.
“When I had to take that time off, I think that forfeited my right to be a leader,” Harrow said. “And then me and Coach Cal sat down and talked and he asked me what I thought I needed to do for the team. Me being the point guard, I said, ‘Being a leader.’ And he was like, ‘That’s not what it is.’ It’s just me going out there and playing hard and doing what I need to do to help the team. That’s my way of leading is just going out there and playing hard and doing everything that the team needs to do.”
Harrow has evolved into one of Kentucky’s best players over the last few weeks, averaging 15.0 points and 3.8 assists over his last four games. He has just five turnovers in 186 minutes this season, including a turnover-less game against the nation’s top pressure defense on Saturday.
With his recent play, has Harrow earned back the right to lead the team?
“Yeah, but I still feel like with me taking all that time off that I need to be listening more,” Harrow said. “I’m playing well, but I think they still have more of a right than I do.”
Midseason turning point?
It’s hard to believe, but with one more nonconference game left on the schedule, a 6 p.m. game on Wednesday against Eastern Michigan, Kentucky is already halfway through its regular-season schedule.
After the Eastern Michigan game is over, UK will have more than a week off to prepare for Southeastern Conference play. The Cats will open league play at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10.
It hasn’t been a stellar nonconference season for Kentucky, but the same can be said for the rest of the conference. With so much uncertainty in the league, can UK make a run at its 46th regular-season SEC crown?
“To be honest, it could go either way,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’re at a point right now where we did a lot of good things and we can step up from it and keep it rolling or we could take a couple steps up and have to start at square one again. We’re in the position where we can keep it going and get a lot better and turn around our season and make it where we want to be in the end.”