Practice report: Learning from a loss

On Monday afternoon, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats held their first team practice since Saturday’s loss against Indiana. They spent a little over two hours on the floor in the Joe Craft Center going through various drills and plays as the team has no games this week due to final exams.

I have been on hand for a handful of practices so far this season and Calipari has always been intense and very vocal, but I can attest that he took things up another notch following the season’s first defeat. He brought up both specific plays and themes from the game throughout. He clearly doesn’t want his players forgetting about what losing felt like and intends to use that feeling as motivation and a teaching tool for the foreseeable future.

Here are some notes and observations from the session:

  • Calipari and the Cats got right down to business when they hit the floor. There was no initial team huddle to begin practice, but there was a break about 45 minutes in when Coach Cal spoke in general terms about the loss. “We played a team that wanted it more than we did,” Calipari said. UK may have had an opportunity to win the game down the stretch, but Calipari said the Wildcats would not have earned it. “You missed free throws and the basketball gods got you,” Calipari said. “You didn’t deserve to win the game.” He referenced the fact that UK may have talent than many of its opponents this season, but that’s not what wins a game like the one against IU. “Talent doesn’t win,” Calipari said. “Fight wins.” Calipari clearly wasn’t happy about the loss, but at the same time, he sees a potential benefit to the Cats faltering. “I wouldn’t have had your attention if you won,” Calipari said. “You wouldn’t have listened to me.”
  • He capitalized on his team’s rapt attention by repeatedly bringing up Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent the Cats to defeat. Any time a player failed to follow instructions, he brought up the fact that the players failed to foul in the final 5.6 seconds before the shot was taken as they were told to in order to demonstrate the perils of not listening to their coach.

    UK returned to the practice floor Monday for the first time since the loss to Indiana.

  • There was certainly plenty of instruction from Calipari for his team to listen to during the practice, which opened with a drill that requires players to sprint the floor and make a series of layups, progressing from individual to two-man to three-man plays. The Cats first had to complete the entire series within a five-minute span, which they did successfully. Coach Cal then had them try the drill again, but this time in under four minutes with players having to repeat a rotation after mistakes. UK did not make it under four minutes the first time, but narrowly completed it the second time. The drill stressed hustle, communication and clutch shooting.
  • Calipari then had his first and second teams run a called play with no defense on the floor, then immediately set up in either a press against a team of assistant coaches, staff and walk-ons or drop back into half-court defense. The primary focus of the drill was on instantly getting into defensive position, which was a problem for UK against IU, particularly in the first half. When dropping into half-court defense, the players had just three seconds to get into defensive position.
  • During the drill, Calipari brought up a couple of interesting points, the first of which was to talk about the sets UK ran to get open layups for Marquis Teague in the first half, opportunities he missed. He was happy with the way the players heeded and executed the game plan, though Teague was unable to finish. “They did exactly what we thought they’d do,” Calipari said. “We executed but we just have to finish.”
  • Calipari also had some direct coaching for Kyle Wiltjer during the drill following a mistake he made with the ball in hands. Calipari is looking for a simple and decisive approach from Wiltjer on offense where he takes shots when they are there for him. “I will not judge you on missed or made shots,” Calipari said. Where Coach Cal will judge Wiltjer is defensively and on the glass, and that’s where he wants his freshman forward to focus when he’s on the floor.
  • It came up first during that aforementioned drill, but Calipari continually asked for his players to be aggressive on defense, particularly when guarding players on the perimeter. With the shot-blocking ability the Cats have inside, Calipari does not mind if his players get beaten off the dribble. He wants them to close hard on outside shooters and rely on their teammates to compensate if their man drives.
  • Calipari is also asking Teague to turn up the heat on opposing point guards trying to initiate offense, which was prompted by the way Indiana’s Jordan Hulls played this weekend. Hulls brought the ball up the floor solely looking to set up his team’s sets, not drive. If UK’s future opponents are doing the same, Calipari wants Teague to be disruptive. “We’re not trying to steal the ball,” Calipari said. “All we’re trying to do is make him throw the ball away.”
  • The team then split up into post and perimeter players, with Terrence Jones going with the perimeter bunch and Darius Miller with the posts. The big men went one on one on post-ups, while the perimeter players attacked each other off the bounce. Of note from this drill was how regularly Miller was able to score with his back to the basket, even with shot blocker extraordinaire Anthony Davis guarding him. Miller has been used frequently on post-ups the last two seasons, but typically only when he has a mismatch. I’m not so sure he shouldn’t get touches inside no matter who is guarding him.
  • The majority of the rest of practice was spent with a focus on rebounding, first with a one-on-one drill. The equipment staff set up devices on two separate baskets designed to make it difficult for John Robic and Jon Hood to make the free throws they were attempting. The first player to grab three rebounds without the ball hitting the floor forced his opponent to the treadmill for a sprint. Also, any player that attempted to grab a one-handed rebound had to run.
  • The Cats then went into a five-on-five rebounding drill. Davis began the drill by absolutely dominating, grabbing nearly every defensive rebound available to him before Robic and Calipari challenged the other nine players on the floor. “Anthony Davis can’t get every rebound,” Robic said. “He can because they’re going to let him,” answered Calipari. From that point forward, rebounds were split much more evenly. Like the previous drill, any one-handed rebound attempts were punished with a trip the treadmill. “I’m done seeing one-handed rebounds,” Calipari said.
  • Practice closed with a drill that required the Cats make 50 baskets running a three-man break in three minutes and they narrowly succeeded. Calipari then gathered his team for a final huddle, saying it’s natural to question yourself following a loss even though his players may be acting like they’re not. The only way to respond is by working hard. He called on his players to spend time shooting free throws outside of practice when not studying for finals and arranged for a time on Tuesday to watch the entire first half of the Indiana game with Teague. Calipari wants to make sure Teague understands why he made the decision to bring him off the bench in the second half.