UK basketball notes: Calipari excited about team's added depth

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 1, 2013 

When asked about the lessons learned from last season, Kentucky Coach John Calipari immediately cites an apparently newfound revelation: There is strength in numbers.

"The No. 1 thing is you can't do what I did last year, and have eight kids on scholarship," he said. "You just can't."

This my-bad self-assessment marked a 180-degree turn for Calipari, who upon arriving at UK in 2009 good-naturedly poked fun at the "football team" he inherited from Billy Gillispie. He's also repeatedly noted how John Wooden and other elder coaching statesmen preached the value of playing only six or seven players.

After the 2012-13 season, Calipari now lauds the benefit of quality depth ... and plenty of it.

"You can't save these kids from competition," he said. "I can't save my own kids from competition. That's the United States. That's what we're about."

Calipari acknowledged a hopeful assumption that contributed to last season's difficulties. A player slotted to be the next, say, point guard or stud forward might struggle more than anticipated. If there are no standout alternatives, the team suffers.

"What I tried to do (was) 'It's his turn, it's his turn,'" Calipari said. "... We had no competition."

As a complicating factor, Calipari lamented how he could not sit a struggling player for longer stretches of games. "There were guys who needed to be out of games, and they knew it," he said. "Like Alex (Poythress) at times."

But there was a Catch-22. Kentucky needed Poythress on the court, and could only hope he and others pulled themselves out of the spiral of struggle/subsequent grumbling by fans/then more of both.

Calipari used the analogy of a golfer suffering through a round of hooks, slices, topped balls, missed putts and inescapable bunkers. "You try to play 27 more holes, and it just gets worse," he said. "Your best bet is when it starts to go south, go home. Have a beer. Laugh about it. And go out tomorrow and you play better."

But UK could not afford to give its top players a mental breather last season, Calipari said. With 16 players on this coming season's roster, including eight McDonald's All-Americans, there are multiple options at every position.

"I know there's a number that's too many," he said. "But you can't do what we did last year. I did it. It was my choice. You look back and think, I put kids in a bad position in a lot of fronts."

Let's get physical

If you can't lick them, join them. Calipari espouses that philosophy. UK will play a more physical style of basketball, including pressing, this season even though there's been much talk about referees calling more fouls in hopes of creating more scoring and crowd-pleasing play.

"Oh, man, I keep hearing they're going to call fouls this year," he said, "and I just watched a whole season where people beat the crap out of people all the way through to the finals."

That sounded like a reference to Louisville, a bogeyman Calipari can't ignore.

"So we're going to play like on the verge of a foul every possession. We have enough guys. That's what I think others are teaching. ... We can play that way because we have more numbers."

How the Cats might press remains undetermined. Full-court? Half-court? Quarter-court? With Willie Cauley-Stein or Marcus Lee guarding the inbounds man?

Hawkins pushes

Calipari noted how fellow freshman Dominique Hawkins can push Aaron and Andrew Harrison in practice. Hawkins gives the twins a look similar to what they'll face in games.

"How big is the point guard on the other team going to be? 6-6?" Calipari asked. "He's going to be 6-1. Tough. Hard-nosed. Physical. That's what Dominique is. So you go right after those guys. ... You show them what they're going to be seeing. I think that's going to be good."

Enough 3-point shooting?

Opponents will want to avoid getting into a running game with Kentucky, Calipari said. Instead, opponents will want to play zone defense and turn games into half-court competitions. That was how opponents played UK in recent seasons.

"The difference is this team can shoot," Calipari said. "There are four or five guys who can make shots.

"I like size against a zone. You can just look over it. If you have smaller, weaker guys, you just look to pass to the next guy."

Rotation

At this ultra-early stage, UK's rotation is far from set.

"I'm not playing 11, 12 guys," Calipari said. "(The Cats might) get to nine. Maybe a 10th guy plays. (Or) we could settle on seven."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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