Practice report: Refreshed legs make for renewed energy

John Calipari’s Kentucky basketball team returned to practice Thursday after its first day off during the official practice season. The Wildcats practiced for two hours and 30 minutes. Here are some notes and observations from the practice. For more, read Sunday’s practice report.

  • Not to say the Wildcats practiced poorly last time out – Coach Cal has been open in praising his team’s start to the season – but Tuesday’s session was certainly the most tired they’ve looked. After six practices in four days, which doesn’t include Big Blue Madness, Media Day and the practice sessions before the weekend, some of the guys didn’t have their legs under them. Well, the energy and intensity was back Thursday after a much-needed day off.
  • The opening warm-up drills, which are essentially full-speed, full-court layup drills, continue to emphasize getting to the basket in as few dribbles as possible. Long striders like Kyle Wiltjer (who, by the way, celebrated his 19th birthday Thursday), Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones get from one side of the court to the other in about four dribbles. When the Cats run the break in two- or three-man sets, the ball never touches the ground. It’s pass, pass, pass, layup.
  • There’s a reason Coach Cal calls Marquis Teague a “pit bull” and a “bulldog.” His play is brutally physical. Even the most talented freshmen need half a season to get on par with the bodies of the rest of college basketball, but that’s not the case with this kid. He uses every ounce of the weight he put on this summer to power his way to the basket. On back-to-back possessions against Ryan Harrow, Teague lowered his shoulder and went straight to the bucket for an easy layup. On one of the baskets, Teague sent Harrow sliding to the floor.
Thursday was Kentucky’s seventh practice since Big Blue Madness.
  • Calipari used the Teague sequence to point out to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that he should be doing the same thing. On the next possession, Kidd-Gilchrist backed down Jarrod Polson and pushed his way into the paint, but to Polson’s credit, he held his ground and blocked the shot (in a game it would probably be called a foul). Equipped with sculpted biceps of his own after a year in the strength and conditioning program, Polson doesn’t let anyone push him around. Throughout the first week he’s tipped away balls from the likes of Anthony Davis and blocked shots against a player the caliber of Kidd-Gilchrist.
  • Very interesting matchup in a one-on-one defensive closeout drill when Cal matched Davis with Darius Miller. Davis usually dominates the one-on-one drills when he’s on the defensive end, but Miller used some craftiness to hold his own. Miller’s array of ball fakes and pivot steps often neutralized Davis’ quickness and length. Miller is playing with a confidence I’ve only seen one other time out of him. That was in last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.
  • Jon Hood may not play a minute this season because of his knee injury, but he’s not moping around on the sidelines either. Despite a little immobility, he’s helping in every drill and remaining an active part of the team while soaking in invaluable information. 
  • Miller didn’t win the five-minute 3-point shooting drill for once. Lamb won Thursday with 53. Miller did win with a season-high 66 on Tuesday. 
  • Calipari doesn’t run a lot of plays – as he’s said to the players on numerous occasions, he is teaching them how to play basketball, not how to run plays – but every team needs a few sets. Cal has begun to install a few inbounds plays, half-court sets and how to press over the last two practices. He also doesn’t waste time building on concepts. What were building blocks the day before become full-speed drills the next. The ability to pick up on what Calipari is teaching is a credit to the players.
  • Speaking of building, the team is diving into a lot more five-on-five games. It’s early, but this team is picking up things fast. Don’t believe me? Remember, Calipari mentioned that Joe B. Hall said a couple of days ago that this team is further along at this point than last year’s team.
  • You’ve heard it before, but Coach Cal loves, loves, loves the lob pass. Calipari said Kidd-Gilchrist is throwing it better than anyone because he’s flying down the court and understanding when to lob it (once the defender commits to him).
  • It takes a lot to impress Coach Cal, but Wiltjer appears to be doing it with his hook shot. After Wiltjer sunk a 10-foot hook shot with Davis over his shoulder, Cal blew his whistle but was left speechless. He then said that he’ll have to watch the film to make sure he isn’t committing a traveling violation. If he’s not, the shot is unstoppable.
  • Coach Cal wasn’t lying about using more pick-and-roll offense this year. He ran the team through some Thursday. The pick seems simple, but Calipari pointed out that you have to set the screen at certain angles so the defender doesn’t “go under” the screen. It’s pretty clear some of the younger guys have some work to do on how to roll. Terrence Jones, on the other hand, seemed to execute the offense well. On Thursday, Jones and Wiltjer looked like the best big guys to utilize in the pick-and-roll.
  • Harrow needs a year to put some weight on his frame, but boy would he add a different dimension to this team. This year’s team is fast, but Harrow has a different gear on him. There’s a difference between speed and quickness, and Harrow is lightning quick. He played really well towards the end of practice. His highlight came on a beautiful backdoor feed from Teague.
  • Calipari is nothing if not adaptable. He said two days ago that this team may use the Dribble Drive Motion Offense 70 percent of the time, but that doesn’t mean he’s not open to new ideas. Taking a page out of the Princeton Offense, he showed his players the value of a backdoor cut.
  • Speaking to the guys at the end of practice, Calipari said Thursday was as good as it gets for having a day off. He said it’s all about getting better, which they’re doing. He singled out Jones again for transforming his body and work ethic, similar to what Josh Harrellson did last season. He said Jones is the first one in the gym and first to finish in sprints. It’s not because Jones has been given an opportunity, Calipari said; it’s because he’s taking things on his own. Calipari acknowledged that Eloy Vargas is starting to work harder as well.

Overheard at practice

You could put a microphone on Coach Cal for an entire practice and find enough sound bites, gyrations and imitations to fill a 30-minute show. He’s that entertaining. Albeit impossible to reproduce what we see from Coach Cal on a daily basis at practice, I figured I would post some of the more notable quotes from him from the last two practices.

“We’re all playing for each other. We’re a glove. We want to be the best defensive team in the country and the best rebounding team in the country.”

“You have to earn your spot on this team. It isn’t about getting an opportunity. It’s about playing yourself into the lineup. If you want an opportunity, what’s the lottery up to? There’s your chance. You put those bucks down and see if you get a chance.”

“You understand, you do not invent stuff on this team. Guys that invent stuff will not play for me. Make the easy play.”

“You know what he did there? He bulldogged you. He’s the bulldog, man.” – talking about Teague’s physical play.

“Listen, this is how the NBA plays. That’s what I’m teaching you.”

“Do what I ask you to do. I just spent five minutes talking about it and what do you do? You hit the guy.”

“I’m excited to walk into this gym. I’m jacked. … You guys come to practice excited, energized and you play with passion. The only thing you’re not doing is talking enough.”