Practice report: Cal coaches Cats through first two-a-days

With Big Blue Madness now squarely in the rearview mirror, John Calipari has four weeks to get his team ready for the season opener against Marist. From this point forward, Calipari can hold practice for 20 hours a week.

On Saturday, it was pedal to the metal as Coach Cal ran the team through two two-hour practices. Mirroring the previous, limited practices Calipari has been afforded to this point, the morning practice focused on the Dribble Drive Motion Offense. The afternoon, however, was the first time Calipari has focused on defense.

Below are observations from the first two practices:

Morning practice

– A common theme in the morning was playing “winning basketball.” As Calipari tries to break old habits, particularly with the newcomers, and get his team to buy into his system, he is emphasizing making the easy play. “This is about winning,” Calipari shouted to his team. “This isn’t about making an extra play that looks good. Every play we’re playing to win.”

– Sophomore Stacey Poole is making strides. He looked much improved in Friday’s scrimmage and that carried over to Saturday morning. On one particular sequence, when Poole simply dumped the ball down to Kyle Wiltjer in the post for an easy basket, Coach Cal stopped practice and praised Poole. “I like what Stacey did,” Calipari said. “Stacey wants to win, so he said, ‘I’m going to do pick-and-roll’ and got it to his big.” At times earlier this year, Poole might have tried to take it himself. Again, winning plays.

– Terrence Jones was a really good player last year. This year, he could be unstoppable. Looks can sometimes be deceiving, but the added weight – around 15 pounds – and the new intensity he’s bringing to practice are paying off. The improvement was best illustrated during a two-on-two drill where Jones got the ball on the block with his back to the basket and the 6-foot-10, shot-blocking phenom of Anthony Davis in his way. Instead of fading out for a jumper or kicking it back out, Jones overpowered the longer Davis and somehow flipped a shot over his outstretched arms. It was an important basket, too, as the losers (Davis’ team) had to run. As Davis and Co. ran, Calipari walked over to Jones and essentially told him, “See what happens when you come in with a different intensity and body.”

– Speaking of Davis, he’s going to be a star. There’s a good chance he’ll be one of the nation’s top shot blockers, and he owns everything above the rim. I mean everything. But you already knew that after Friday night.

John Calipari ran his team through two two-hour practices on Saturday at the Joe Craft Center.

– There are new players in the system, but the Dribble Drive Motion Offense remains the same. It’s about getting to the rack as quick as possible and beating your man on the dribble. Everything Calipari runs in practice revolves around it.

– Saturday was the best I’ve seen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shoot the ball. During a timed shooting drill, he frequently strung together streaks of five or more 3-pointers.

– In that same drill, Darius Miller hardly missed. I didn’t see what the clock was set to – it was only a few minutes – but it sounded like Miller led everyone with 61 makes.

– As intense as Calipari is, his practices aren’t without a little comic relief. The funniest moment of the day took place when Calipari tried to help Davis with his hook shot. Taking the ball from Davis, Cal spun and banked a hook shot off the glass as if he were Bob Cousy. Walking back down the floor, Calipari saw Jones smiling. Cal, as if to say he could do that in his sleep, said, “What? You’ve never seen me hit that shot before?” It was one of those moments where you had to be there to find the humor in it.

– Coach Calipari loves the floater. He’s often praised Miller and Doron Lamb for using it. Now it looks like Marquis Teague is starting to develop one. During one particular drill, Teague floated one over Jones and swished it through the hoop. Calipari said he would have loved it even if he would have missed, because, by forcing Jones to step up, it left someone (in this case Davis) wide open underneath the basket for an easy tip-in. “It’s the best shot in the Dribble Drive,” Calipari said. “That’s a great shot for us.”

Afternoon practice

– Most of the practice was focused on defensive principles, but Calipari started the afternoon with a rebounding drill. The focus was rebounding with two hands. Each player threw the ball off the backboard and worked on grabbing it with two hands and their elbows up. Cal wanted the players yelling after each rebound.

– It looks like Cal is really going to utilize Wiltjer’s skill set. He has such a unique combination of size and skills that he’s the perfect trailer. A lot of times Saturday, Teague would push the ball up the floor only to leave it for Wiltjer at the top of the key. Wiltjer has the option to shoot, drive to the basket and lay it in, or drive and kick it. A lot of times, as Wiltjer kicked it to the perimeter, he would head to the corner for a 3. Almost every time he got the ball back he knocked down the shot.

– To start the defensive work, Calipari took away the balls and had the players work on lunges. Starting with single lunges and progressing to triple lunges, the players would run in place and wait for assistant coach John Robic’s signal to make a lunge. They did this back and forth from sideline to sideline. The object is to beat your man with the ball to the spot he’s trying to get to. Calipari said they’ll work on the drill every day in practice. He wants them excited for it so he had them chest bump each other as they finished the drill.

– Miller was the perfect model for the lunges. Calipari routinely stopped the players and had Miller show them how to properly do it. During the triple lunges, Miller showed he could lunge from the sideline to the middle of the court in about a half a second. As Calipari pointed out, no defender is getting past Miller if he can do that in the games.

– Building on the lunges, the coaches ran the players through a series of crossover drills. With Robic standing near midcourt and all 15 players facing him, Robic would mimic a crossover and the players would quickly change defensive positions. Calipari critiqued their footwork to get them to square up to their man without getting beat. “All you’re trying to do is get away and stay in front,” he said.

– When they started doing one-on-one defending, that’s when the defensive skills and competitive spirit of Kidd-Gilchrist that Calipari has talked so much about started to show. It’s still early, but he looks like he’s going to be the best option to fill the defensive void left by DeAndre Liggins. He has active hands and doesn’t allow the drive. Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist were easily the best matchup of the one-on-ones, but Kidd-Gilchrist was so defensively tough that he forced Miller into a few step-back fadeaways.

– Part of defense is learning how to take charges and dive for loose balls. Believe it or not, there are drills for that. Calipari taught his team the proper way to take a charge. He emphasized that you have to keep your hands up when you fall back. He said if you put your hands behind you, you’re going to get hurt.

– In diving for loose balls, Coach Cal instructed them to use their shoulder and roll to their back. He said it’s the same concept football players use when they try to recover a fumble.

– Next up was transition defense. With 10 players on the court, two defenders sprinted from the free-throw line to the baseline and then tried to recover on defense before the other team took advantage of the five-on-three opportunity. Communication was crucial in the drill. Players had to talk to figure out who had who as the two players sprinting got back. “We have to be the most talkative team in the country,” Calipari said.

– A drill called “30 seconds” was exactly that. For 30 seconds, the defense worked on their defensive positioning as the offense passed the ball around the horn for 30 seconds. Again, Calipari was adamant that the players call out who they’ve got and kept their hands up. He also had them start each session by slapping the floor.

– When practice was over, Calipari told the players that everything they do for the rest of the year will be built off the foundation they set Satruday.

– The team will practice twice again Sunday.

– Just like Calipari doesn’t sugarcoat things when he doesn’t like them, he also gives credit when credit is due. As his team huddled up for the final time Saturday, he expressed his pleasure with their effort. “This was a great first day,” Calipari said, “but it’s only the first day. We don’t have an out-of-bounds play, we don’t have a press attack, we don’t have a side out-of-bounds play – we don’t have anything. We have handoffs. That’s it. But this was a good day. This is what it’s about.”