Basketball is not meant to be played standing straight up.
That, to a certain degree, is what John Calipari has been drilling into his team this week in practice since its offensively impressive but defensively lacking win over Texas-Arlington on Tuesday.
“We’re trying to get them to play through a whole possession, stay in a stance,” Coach Cal said on Friday. “Someone said ‘Wow, you guys got beat on the dribble.’ Yeah, if you’re standing straight up and down, it’s pretty easy to get beat on the dribble.”
To a greater degree, the lessons have been about something a little more disconcerting than just a defensive technique.
“When I watched the tape there’s just not the effort,” Calipari said.
Coach Cal doesn’t mean to sound like a broken record, but effort has been far and away his biggest concern with his team so far this season. It isn’t as if his players aren’t trying – they are – it’s just not the sustained effort Calipari knows is required to be a special team.
Like many of the problems Coach Cal has faced with his inexperienced teams at Kentucky, the problem is rooted in youth.
For so many of Kentucky’s key pieces, they have long thrived at what they do simply because they were better than everyone else. In high school, they could get away with giving effort in doses, but it was almost never required of them to do it a maximum level or in sustained periods.
“For most of these kids, they were always bigger and stronger and longer and faster, you didn’t have to outwork the other guy,” Calipari said. “If a team’s effort level is far beyond yours, it will smash a talented group. Just will. A less talented team that just fights like crazy will beat the talented team.”
That hasn’t happened yet in Kentucky’s four victories, games in which the Cats (4-1) have won by an average margin of 32.2 points, but the Michigan State game perhaps provides a bit of evidence for Calipari’s point. Against a team that was nearly on par with UK’s talent level, effort won the day.
Head coach: Gary Waters (139-102 at Cleveland State)
Player to watch: Bryn Forbes (averaging 19.6 points per game)
Series history: UK leads 1-0
Last meeting: UK won 73-49 on Nov. 24, 2009
To break old habits, Calipari is trying to get his players to understand that the result isn’t always the greatest indicator of how a team is playing.
“I asked them what having fun was. They said winning. I said, ‘No, not necessarily,’ ” Coach Cal said. “It’s coming out and having an unbelievable effort by everyone that’s on that floor and who comes in the game and forcing your will on the other team, doing it together and talking and having fun doing it. That’s fun. You may lose a game and be miserable after the game, but throughout the game you had a ball playing because you tried to do it and the other team did it back, you went back and forth.”
Calipari said sometimes a team can lose and feel good because it gave everything. Then there are times where a team wins by a bunch and shouldn’t feel good. Tuesday’s 29-point thumping of Texas-Arlington was one of them.
“They don’t know that,” Coach Cal said. “This is all stuff that’s new to them.”
The 2012 national championship team was nearly as young as this group, but it featured a special player in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whose greatest asset wasn’t necessarily his talent.
“Michael didn’t need to be taught about effort,” Calipari said. “That’s what Michael brought to the table.”
The closest this team has in terms of that constant effort Coach Cal says is Dominique Hawkins, who, at an even 6 feet, doesn’t possess the same physical advantage as Kidd-Gilchrist did and is far exceeding the number of minutes most people expected him to play at this point in the year.
“I knew that I would get some playing time, but it’s like earlier,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t expect to get early playing time as I do right now in the season, so I guess I’m kind of shocked.”
Calipari is hoping Hawkins’ effort will rub off on some of the other freshmen because, as he said, this is “a team that is behind.”
“We’re so long, you have to get down in the stance and have a hand up, because you’re taking away a jumper, because you’re 7-foot tall, you’re 6-9,” Coach Cal said. “You don’t get in it, go down and go like this and make yourself 6-foot. So then it’s like, ‘Well, I can’t have my hand up and get down.’ Oh, yeah you can. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing. So we’ve got some of that.”
With two games over the next three days – Monday against Cleveland State and Wednesday versus Eastern Michigan – effort will continue to be the Cats’ biggest focus.
It may seem like a broken record for Calipari to continue harping on it, but finding a more sustained team-wide effort will be crucial over the next couple of weeks as a difficult stretch of games in December looms
“Great bunch of kids. They really are, one of the greatest groups I’ve coached, but they’re kids, you know, and we’ve got a lot of learning to do and a lot of habits to break,” Calipari said. “It’s hard to break them, and especially if I keep seeing on tape and it’s the same. Then I’ve had to change what I’m doing in practice and how I’m doing it to you know, to get them to do the right stuff.”
Calipari not worried about attendance
It isn’t uncommon these days to turn on a sporting event, whether it’s college basketball or pro football, and see empty seats in the stands.
For whatever reason, attendance across most sports and at most levels seems to be sagging, and though Kentucky hasn’t been hit to the degree that everyone else has, the attendance of 20,305 at Tuesday night’s game at Rupp Arena was the lowest in the Coach Cal era.
Calipari isn’t concerned.
“That’s one great thing here: I don’t need to market and I don’t need to sell tickets,” Coach Cal said. “I don’t need to put up billboards. No, we’ll be fine.”
UK has led the nation in home attendance for the last eight years and 17 of the last 18 seasons, but UK’s average home attendance is down from 23,099 in 2012-13 to 21,811 in four home games this year.
“I think what happens for us is every game being on TV and you have an arena the size of ours, sometimes people (say) ‘Ah, I’ll just go watch it on TV.’ That has an impact, but that’s everywhere,” Calipari said. “I think the one program that has sustained that support is this program.”
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