Basketball season is upon us, and there are questions to be answered.
How good is this team? What did the Wildcats learn from last season? How will John Calipari assemble this team? Who will be the leaders? What will be Coach Cal’s approach.
Calipari answered all those and more in preseason media opportunity about a month ago. Starting Tuesday at midnight, the embargo on that interview was lifted. We’ll release the interview in four parts over the next few days. Here is part one of four.
Question: You’ve had young teams and you’ve got another young team. What did you learn about last year’s young team that you can apply to this year?
Calipari: The No. 1 thing is that you have to have – you can’t do what I did last year and have eight kids on scholarship. You just can’t. What happens is people want to talk about just the competition of it. And it’s true. You can’t save these kids from competition. I can’t save my own children from competition. That’s the United States. That’s what we’re about. So what I tried to do was like, it’s his turn, it’s his turn, we just won a national title, I don’t want to bring kids in. Let these kids (play). You can’t do it that way. So we had no competition. But more than that, there are guys that needed to be out of the game, and they knew it. Like Alex (Poythress) at times. It’s kind of like you’re playing golf and it goes south, so you try to play 27 more holes and it just gets worse. Your best bet is when it started to go south, go home, have a beer, laugh about it, and then go out tomorrow and you play better. Well, that happens if you have enough players. So it’s not just about competition. There were times when Archie (Goodwin) needed to just – ‘Sit for a while, kid. I’m not mad at you. Just sit down.’ We couldn’t’ do it. I did it and I looked for a minute and I went, oh my gosh, go back in. You can’t do it that way. I know there is a number that is too many, but you can’t do what we did a year ago, and that was my own (doing). It’s what I did. It was my choice. You look back and say we put the kids in a bad position on a lot of fronts.
Question: A couple of your guys said they were too high on themselves going into the season. Will you approach that any differently this year considering the hype of your team?
Calipari: You had guys that were delusional, too, about who they were. When we started practicing we knew. After the Maryland game I knew. Like, guys, this is not what we’ve been coaching, this is not how we’ve been playing and we don’t have a whole lot of good choices here. This team will be different. I worked them out the other day. It’s what I was used to seeing. I don’t think that will be a problem. The issue for us is going to be how quickly can we come together? Can we get in the kind of shape you have to be in to compete at the level we’re going to try to compete? They get along. They got along together before they got here kind of like other teams I’ve had where, before you walk on campus, they know each other and they like each other. Last year that wasn’t the case. Willie (Cauley-Stein) didn’t know Nerlens (Noel). Nerlens didn’t know Archie. None of them knew Alex. They had played together a little bit, but they didn’t’ know each other. This group, you could tell they’re hanging around each other, they’re following each other. And again, you can’t compare one year to the next. The one thing – and then I would rather just move forward because that’s how I am – but in a lot of ways, last year was a total success for players. Three guys graduate. 3.4 grade-point average. Two No. 1 picks. Julius (Mays) gets a contract overseas. The two kids that come back (Cauley-Stein and Poythress), they were projected that they could have been first-round picks. Kyle (Wiltjer) is the (Southeastern Conference) Sixth Man of the Year. When you look at it, (win) 20 games. If you beat Vandy in the (SEC) tournament you’re probably in the NCAA Tournament even though we weren’t a very good team. There were things that happened for those kids that was really good. For us and for me as a staff, it was really disappointing that we didn’t come together or that guys weren’t able to elevate their game. Maybe they just weren’t capable But, aside from that, when I look back, I say for the kids, they can look back and say, was it a bad year for this guy, that guy, that guy? They go, nope, it was a good year for me. It just wasn’t what we expect a team to be able to do.
Question: When you talk about those numbers and guys getting to know each other and the chemistry, how hard was it to wait for those last three guys (Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young) to get here after missing this summer? Did they miss much?
Calipari: No. They had academic stuff they had to finish, which they did. It was nothing crazy, but again, you’ve got to understand that our summer school (terms), they overlap. I haven’t talked to our president about it, but we’ve almost got to do something. I’ve never heard of two summers schools overlapping. Why would that happen? We don’t even know why. Why wouldn’t you have a June summer session and then one that starts after July 4, which is what everybody in the country does. So if you’re in Chicago, those schools don’t let out until the 23, 24 of June. Guess what? Those kids can’t even get in our summer school – either one. Like, you can’t come to summer school. You’re not out of high school yet. So, the way we do this, we knew, OK, I don’t think those two are going to get done – those three – are going to get done with this class or that or whatever they had to finish up, and they didn’t. And so that was the issue. But we knew. We were comfortable throughout. I don’t know if John (Hayden) or DeWayne (Peevy) said there are all kinds of rumors. There’s always all kinds of rumors at this place. But they’re fine.
Question: Have they slid in seamlessly with the rest of the guys?
Calipari: Yeah, they all know each other. This group, they want to know, and they know they need each other. They know it’s going to take each of them. We’ve been kind of clear with individuals what we’re having to do and what we’re trying to do. They’re good.
Question: You talk about this team coming together. Is there anything that might speed that up or slow that down?
Calipari: Speeding it up, just you get into games and they feel it going faster than they normally do, but there’s a process here. Don’t know how many freshmen will start, but you could start anywhere from three to five. And that just, they haven’t played together. Right now, we’re already showing them more of the Dribble Drive than we have since my first year, and so I’m showing them tape of some of my Memphis teams of how we played. But when I look at it, those guys have played it three years except for Derrick Rose. Those other guys played it three years. It takes time for things to develop. You hope it’s quicker than it should be. You hope your veterans, your sophomores, Alex and Willie, elevate so they can drag. But, you just don’t know. I think the biggest thing – the conditioning, the toughness, the mental toughness – if that’s not where I think it is, than that will slow down the process. But the other thing is just through experience. You’ve got to get on the court. You build your own self-esteem. You build your confidence through demonstrated performance. And they’ve got to get on the court and do it.
Question: Do you believe Alex has made the strides you hoped he would?
Calipari: He’s way better, but the guys around him are way better. But he’s made strides. I’m happy. This summer going against Julius (Randle) every day, that’s a handful. That’s like going against a 6-9 Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist) every day where he’s not slowing down; he’s trying to dunk every ball on you. You don’t feel like playing today or I don’t feel like embarrassing anybody, well, the choice is you embarrass him or he’s embarrassing you. It’s not about not embarrassing anybody. You embarrass him or he’s embarrassing you. So now all of a sudden you start changing. You’re like, whoa, how do I do this? What do I do? So he’s done fine. He’s got a hamstring right now so he hasn’t played since we’ve been back. But he’ll be fine.
Question: How do you hope some of the individual matchups in practice help individual guys improve, sort of like Alex and Julius? Are there some others that you think could benefit?
Calipari: I’m going to tell you who is better than I thought he was is Dakari Johnson. His body is fat I think seven percent, so now all of a sudden he is dunking everything around the rim, where before, the question mark we all had was he plays well below the rim, (but) how do we do this? All of a sudden I’m sitting there watching him and all the stuff we’re doing, and he’s easily dunking balls now. He’s one of those bigs that we’ve had to play against that puts his body on you and you have to do something. One guy can’t do it. So he’s better than I thought, and that’s really going to challenge Willie. It’s almost got to make Willie mad. We did some stuff yesterday, and all of a sudden Willie got mad and then how he’s going to have to play came out. It’s not like I want kids to play angry, but some kids – it’s all different for every kid. I think what Dominique (Hawkins) can do for Andrew and Aaron what they need to see. The guys that are going to guard them, how big are they going to be? How big is the point guard on the other team going to be? 6-6? He’s going to be about 6-1. He’s going to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical (guard). Well, that’s what Dominique is. So you go right after these guys. You physically, defensively show them what they’re going to be facing. I think that’s going to be good. I even think James and Alex having to go (at each other helps) because I think Alex looks around and says, maybe let me play the three some. I don’t have to play this way. Let me go against this guy. I think that’s going to be there. But we can play big, we can play small. It’s back to where we were. I’m watching right now when we’re doing drills and they’re just playing through bumps and naturally getting to the rim. They’re banging each other. I went home and I was singing to myself and back and ready start talking crap again and here we go, and then what popped in my mind? Oh my gosh, these guys are all going to leave. Where’s my phone? And now I’m calling (recruits). I made two calls before I got home, and you know I don’t live that far from here. It’s the life we chose, I guess you could say.
Question: You have two guys in Andrew and Aaron who have shared everything growing up together. Do you have to do anything different with those guys to make sure they get involved with everybody?
Calipari: Well, we’ve talked about it. What were the myths when John Wall came here? What were the myths? (Selfish). What else? Do you remember what happened before he got here? (Not a good teammate). Go ahead, what else? (Bad kid). We heard it all. And then you all were stunned that this is a great kid. One thing happened during the year. Everybody figured we’ve got to take him out, so their whole defense was geared to him. It got harder and harder and harder, and then he came out one day and said I’m having fun. No kidding, it’s hard. They’re trying to take you out now, and you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do. But at the end of the day, everyone walked away and said what a great kid this is. Well, every kid on the team, you’ve got different guys that will come in with myths. One of the things that they’ll say is, “Why would you want to play with those two? They only play (with each other).” Who started that myth? Everybody recruiting against us. So all of a sudden they fed that to the media. They fed that to everybody, and they know it’s out there. They know it’s a myth. But when you watch them, they don’t even hang together. Like they’re not hanging in the same room together. They’ll have their own two or three guys. But, they have the same DNA. I had two kids when I was at UMass that were not twins and were not brothers, but (they) were born on the same day in Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish. Those two were like twins. My team got really good because they could look at each other and they knew what it meant. They talked in Spanish. “Go back door.” The defense didn’t have any idea what the dude was saying. And the guy went back door and he just threw it to him. If they were yelling at each other, they were doing it in Spanish. (Do the Harrisons speak in Spanish?) Their DNA is the same. They can look at each other and they know what the hell they’re talking about. (Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla who you are talking about?) Yeah, yeah.