John Calipari has tried just about everything this season to get his players to buy in.
He has run them through his personal boot camp, strapped heart monitors to them and even assigned a book for them to read. When none of that worked and the season appeared on the brink of going down the tubes, Coach Cal went to his bag of tricks and got out – not a magic wand – a dodgeball.
Yes, a dodgeball.
To put last week’s devastating events behind them, lighten the mood and get his players to smile again, Coach Cal decided to surprise his team with a game of dodgeball Tuesday night following his team’s pre-Vanderbilt walkthrough (watch the video of it here).
Maybe the unconventional method won’t send Kentucky flying toward another Final Four, but for one game at least – a 74-70 victory over Vanderbilt – it stopped the bleeding and prevented the Cats’ season from spiraling out of control.
It may have even saved the season.
“We just were talking, and (said), ‘What can we do? We’ve got to lighten this mood up. These guys are with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Let’s do something,’ ” Calipari said.
So they went out and bought rubber balls, assistant coach John Robic put on a headband and some high socks, and they hurled balls at each other for nearly an hour on the Joe Craft Center floor in a coaches vs. players game of dodgeball.
Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who scored a career-high 20 points in the win, said something as silly as dodgeball was enough to make a difference for the new-look Cats.
Technically, he may not be replacing Nerlens Noel, but Willie Cauley-Stein certainly did his best impression of his injured teammate with a career-high 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
“Everybody’s spirits was down,” Cauley-Stein said. “Even at practice (Coach Cal) was trying to be real peppy, but you still have that feeling and that taste in your mouth. It was just nasty. It was just a bad environment.”
The dodgeball distraction changed everything.
A half-hour of throwing balls at each other and laughing with their teammates and coaches made them forget about Nerlens Noel’s season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear, getting “smacked” at Tennessee, and the pressure of the NCAA Tournament.
All that was replaced by smiles.
“It wipes everything out,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s kind of what it did. It was like, ‘Oh, dodgeball!’ Right when he said dodgeball, anything you was thinking was gone.”
Those smiles carried over to the basketball court Wednesday in UK’s game against Vanderbilt.
While the Cats were far from perfect, they held on for what was essentially a must-win to snap a two-game slide. The victory, UK’s first without Noel, improved Kentucky’s record to 18-8 on the season, 9-4 in Southeastern Conference play.
“They played with confidence today, and that’s all we’re talking about,” Calipari said. “We’re just saying, you’ve got to go out and shoot shots you have, make plays you can make.”
The Cats got impressive performances from a number of players.
While he’s no Noel, Cauley-Stein did his best impression of his flat-top friend with 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, including two big swats late in the game.
“Your self-esteem, your self-confidence, your self-worth, you build that yourself,” Coach Cal said. “There’s no coach that does that for you. You do it by an unbelievable work ethic and then demonstrated performance. You build your own confidence. Willie has just not been out there enough to have demonstrated performance. He did today. He demonstrated what he can do, which is going to help his confidence.”
The guard play, which has been a huge problem of late, was much better.
The turnovers were down (seven total team turnovers), the assists were up (13 between the UK trio of Julius Mays, Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin) and the fast-break points were back (12 Wednesday after zero against Tennessee).
Without Noel in the lineup, Calipari decided to open up the court for his guards and let them beat their defenders off the dribble. It paid off against the Commodores.
“It also gives Ryan room to move and get his confidence, so we opened up the court so he could get into some pick-and-rolls,” Coach Cal said. “And you know, he needs to play more confident, and he did today.”
Harrow broke a two-game scoreless streak with 12 points and four assists. He asked Coach Cal earlier in the week to put him back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench at Tennessee.
The confident move spilled over to the court.
“That was a big step for Ryan,” Cauley-Stein said. “We need him to be more vocal like that; get it within himself and express how he feels to coach. It’s all about growing up and starting to be a man like that.”
Goodwin also scored 16 under-control points. Mays dished out six assists in addition to six rebounds and nine points.
Mays’ shot-clock, buzzer-beating 3 with 3:23 in the game snapped UK out of a long scoring drought. The Cats had just four points over a seven-plus minute span late in the game, allowing Vanderbilt to close a 13-point deficit to just two points.
“He’s defending, he’s passionate, he’s showing leadership,” Calipari said. “And if he makes shots, whew. And if he doesn’t make shots, it’s easy to leave him on the court (because of everything else).”
The Cats hit six free throws in the final minute of the game to hang on for the victory.
Cal joked in his postgame radio show that, in addition to the dodgeball video on this website, he was also going to feature a video of him rising out of a casket saying, “We’re not dead yet!”
Casket jokes and silly dodgeball games aside, the statement rings true for at least another game. Calipari wanted his guys to have some fun, play loose and fight back, and they did Wednesday night.
“I keep telling (them), this could be the greatest story in the college basketball season if they want it to be, but you’ve got to fight and battle,” Coach Cal said. “If you want good things to happen, make them happen. “