John Calipari spent the first 30 minutes of a two-and-a-half hour practice Monday in a bad mood. He caught himself a couple of times just shaking his head.
“I was angry today,” Coach Cal said. “I was mad at me.”
For the second time in the last week, the Kentucky head coach was taking the blame for his team’s shortcomings on his weekly radio show with Tom Leach, only this time he said he’s discovered a solution.
The epiphany came to him while he was watching film with some of his assistants on Sunday.
“It was just like, bang, wait a minute,” Calipari said. “And I’m like, I’ve done this other years. Why did I not do it this year?”
Maybe realizing that UK has had a number of “aha” moments that have proved to be fool’s gold, or perhaps just not wanting to get ahead of himself, Coach Cal reserved judgment until practice Monday afternoon. He made what he described as a “tweak” and then watched to see if it actually worked.
When he saw his team was having its best practice since November, it hit him that he was truly on to something.
“You know how you’re doing something and you’re not really sure, and all of a sudden you do something and you see it and you go, ‘That’s it!’ That’s what I saw today,” Calipari said on the radio show.
Calipari said the breakthrough made him “jacked” and ready for his team to take the next step. He described a different mindset for the players after the tweak. They were happy, smiling, “bouncing and talking.”
“It just changed everything,” Coach Cal said.
And that’s also why Calipari is so mad at himself.
For all the digging he’s done, the adjustments he’s tried and the pleading with his team to change, the remedy he appears to have found is something he said he should have discovered long ago.
“I apologized to them today,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘I should have known better. I’ve been through this 20 years. There are things that you try and different things that you tweak. But I said, ‘You know what? Make me look now. I screwed this up. Make me look good.’ ”
As for what the actual “tweak” is, Coach Cal isn’t willing to disclose that information quite yet and he told his players to keep a secret as well.
But when fans watch his team play on Friday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta, Calipari said everyone will notice it. He said his team won’t be “100 points better,” but he does expect to see a different group than the one that’s gone 22-9 through the regular season, failed to build on preseason expectations, and fell out of the polls on Monday, becoming the first team since the 1979-80 Indiana squad to start the year No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 and fall out of the poll in the same season.
“What we want people to say when they watch us is, ‘Man, this is what we’ve been waiting on,’ ” Calipari said.
One change Coach Cal was willing to disclose on his radio show Monday was that he’s abandoning his typical tone-it-down practices at the end of the season in favor of rougher, longer, more physical practices. Instead of scaling practices back to an hour and 30 minutes, Calipari said they went two-and-a-half hours on Monday and plan on doing the same Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I told them, ‘I need you to eat tonight, go get treatment, go get more treatment, get treatment in the morning, sleep tonight, and let’s get another practice,’ ” Calipari said.
He likened Monday’s workout to football, even saying (exaggerating?) that his team used helmets and pads to get the players to play more physical and finish through the contact that has plagued the Wildcats of late.
“The football practice today is going to get us ready to be fouled and play offensively through it,” Calipari said. “And also, we’re going to foul. Now you’re going to call them on everybody now, but we’ll foul now and be physical. Our arms are going to be up. You’re going to see their hands. And that’s how we’ve got to play.”
A new emphasis on officiating physical play was put into place this season, but Calipari suggested the change has been de-emphasized in recent weeks.
“You’re watching our games,” Calipari told Leach. “Everybody’s just beating the heck out of everybody and whoever can beat the heck out of the other team, that team’s winning.”
So, Coach Cal’s solution is to play physical right back.
“Show your hands and foul ‘em,” he said. “But show your hands. Body check ‘em, hip check ‘em.”
If that’s how the game is going to be called now, Calipari has no problems with it; he just wants it called both ways. His team is now making the adjustment so that when his team gets fouled, “it does not matter.”
“You drive, you’re getting banged, so we’ve got to do it against each other,” Calipari told his radio show listeners.
Again, Coach Cal took the blame for not making the adjustment sooner.
“We’re not as physical as we need to because of me, the way I coached them, what I taught,” Calipari said. “We were told that if there’s hands on, that’s all going to be fouls, it’s all fouls. That’s on me. How we’re playing offensively and the tweaks I made, that’s on me.”
Calipari said he can’t expect an 18- or 19-year-old to know what they did Monday in practice.
“Any time I think a player is farther along … it’s always a mistake,” he said. “These kids really, they need you to coach them in every way. They really do. And today showed me that.”
It may seem like too late in the season to make such drastic changes, but perhaps it’s not too late for a “tweak.” From the few adjustments he made Monday, he already noticed a team that “looked more together.”
“We still have a chance to do something crazy,” Calipari said.
Ultimately, though, Calipari said this team’s final chapter still comes down to its ability to play for each other and not as individuals. He noted that as players have played for themselves this season, their individual stocks – presumably their draft statuses – have dropped.
“Even playing better and all that, adversity hits, these young kids got to come together,” Calipari said. “You can’t let one thing affect the next, affect the next, affect the next.”
Changes have been made, now the execution part must happen. And in the end, talk aside, he knows that’s how this team will be judged.
“I can’t fight for you, but we can make some adjustments in what we’re doing,” Coach Cal said. “At the end of the day, today, what we do, enough talk. There doesn’t need to be anymore talk. We’re playing.”
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