John Clay: Calipari's mastery is in letting players dictate style of play

Herald-leader sports columnistAugust 6, 2014 

When you think back to John Calipari's arrival from Memphis, amid the trumpets and cheers was the general perception that the new Kentucky basketball coach was the sport's foremost practitioner of the cutting-edge dribble-drive offense.

As with many things in this grayish world of ours, this assumption turned out to be largely incorrect.

John Calipari isn't wedded to the dribble-drive offense. He isn't wedded to the low-post offense or the pick-and-roll offense or the shoot-the-three-every-time-down-the-floor offense. There isn't a John Calipari offense or a John Calipari way of playing basketball.

Why not?

Calipari asked that very question Wednesday during a news conference to preview his team's six-game trip to the Bahamas, which starts Sunday.

"Because I have different players every year," he said.

It's the same this year. To be sure, for the first time since occupying a parking spot at the Craft Center, Calipari has a core of returning talent. Andrew Harrison. Aaron Harrison. Dakari Johnson. Willie Cauley-Stein. Alex Poythress. Marcus Lee. Derek Willis. Dominique Hawkins.

He also has the usual assortment of multistar newcomers, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles, although injury will prevent Lyles from playing in the Bahamas. (Cauley-Stein won't play, either.)

Just as it takes time for a team to develop chemistry and for players to learn to play together, it takes time for Calipari to determine the best way for his team to play.

"This isn't Cal ball," Cal said. It's not "'This is how we're going to play every year.' We don't know how we're going to play every year."

Fast? Slow? Inside-outside? Outside-inside? All man-to-man defense? A lot of zone defense?

"I'd like to press more, but we start pressing and it doesn't look good and doesn't fit this team, then we won't," Calipari said. "I mean, we've been working on zone right now. Tony (Barbee) has been talking to me about zone: 'This would be a great zone team.'"

Barbee is the former Auburn head coach and former Calipari assistant who recently rejoined his old coach's staff.

"As soon as they make a three, we're out of the zone," Calipari cracked. "I'm just telling you. I know that."

All this goes back to Calipari's step one in recruiting: Get the best players. Worry about step two later.

Other coaches might earn kudos for fitting players into their system. Wisconsin's Bo Ryan comes to mind. Nothing wrong with that. Calipari should get credit for showing the flexibility to find a system best for his players.

Late last year, this was famously known as "tweaking." Part of the "tweak" was getting players to leave behind a disappointing regular season and focus on the new opportunity of the post-season. There were some subtle tweaks, however, that worked marvelously.

"Basketball Bennies, why didn't I do it from the day I first walked in?" Calipari asked Wednesday. "I wasn't sure.

"Now I could make it about me and say, 'You're going to play this way,' or I could watch them play and say, 'The best thing now that I've been with you for two months, the best way for you to play and us to play is this.' And it took me 21/2 months."

Let's hope it doesn't take that long this season. And this is why the Bahamas trip promises to be so beneficial.

And Calipari has tweaked that as well. He has scheduled games against basically three professional teams of older players.

"Some of them are as old as 37, 38 years old," he said. "I coached the Dominican team and I don't know exactly."

It was obvious Wednesday that Calipari feels good about his team, but he doesn't know what style of basketball they will play. The Bahamas should help him figure it out.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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