Kentucky opens the 2017-18 season against Utah Valley on Friday night. Coach John Calipari can only hope the Wildcats play basketball.
Calipari explained that odd-sounding concept at a news conference Thursday.
There’s a difference between playing and playing basketball, he said. The former tends more toward athleticism. His definition of basketball includes an adjective: WINNING basketball.
Calipari boiled down the basketball that he wants from his latest freshman-dependent team to layups: The more Kentucky gets, the merrier he will be. And the fewer the opponent gets, the better.
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Ideally, the UK coach said he wanted his team to get a good shot on each possession, then get multiple second-chance opportunities. Then on defense, he said he wants the Cats to limit the opponent to one contested shot and no offensive rebounds.
Calipari suggested that playing winning basketball might be important as soon as the opener against Utah Valley, which is coached by former UK player Mark Pope.
Both Athlon and Street & Smith picked Utah Valley to finish fourth in the Western Athletic Conference.
The Wolverines return three guards from a team that finished with a 17-17 record last season: Conner Toolson, Brandon Randolph and Kenneth Ogbe. The team also had a 7-foot transfer from Oklahoma, Akolda Manyang. Isaac Neilson, one of three fifth-year seniors expected to start, made the All-WAC defensive team last season.
Of Utah Valley, then Vermont on Sunday and Tuesday’s early-season showdown with Kansas, Calipari said, “These are not going to be teams, you know, play bad and win. You’re going to have to play (at least) fair. You don’t have to play perfect games because we’re not going to for a while. We may never this season.”
Calipari offered a list of do’s and don’ts associated with playing winning basketball, the long-range goal for Kentucky.
Of the do’s, he said, “You do what you do best. If you’re a driver, drive. If you’re a shooter, shoot.
“Then when we get back on defense, we’re going to give them one tough shot. And we’re going to rebound like crazy.”
Calipari included fouling among the don’ts. “You negate any hustle by fouling,” he said.
“You’re not going to shut them out. But you don’t want to get in foul trouble because that’s how you lose games.”
This is as hard as I’ve been on a team since I’ve been here, I would say. . . . I’m not cussing. But I’m loud. I’m holding them accountable.
Other don’ts the UK coach mentioned included:
▪ Taking a shot that teammates are not in position to rebound.
▪ Shooting instead of passing to a teammate who had a higher-percentage shot.
▪ Forcing a drive when a path to the basket is not there.
▪ Jogging instead of running back on defense because you’re upset you missed a shot.
▪ Not talking on defense.
▪ Getting out of position because you tried to make a steal.
Calipari used the word “process” — surely not for the last time this season — to describe where his inexperienced team is now and the progress they want to make toward playing winning basketball in the postseason.
The process involves making habits of the components of winning basketball.
“It takes time for them to get ingrained,” Calipari said of these habits.
He has tried to speed up the process in practices. “This is as hard as I’ve been on a team since I’ve been here, I would say . . . ,” Calipari said. “I’m not cussing. But I’m loud. I’m holding them accountable.”
The opener against Utah Valley can show how far along this development of new habits is, he said.
One of UK’s freshmen, Kevin Knox, acknowledged the likelihood that his college debut will bring the distraction of anxiety.
“Oh yeah, I’ll definitely have butterflies,” he said. “I know other people would. They probably won’t admit it.”
His parents and grandparents plan to attend the game, Knox said.
“Once that first basket goes in, I’ll be good,” he said.
But surely not good enough in relation to where Kentucky wants to be in March.
“Now, you just have to fight through it,” Calipari said of this initial stage of the process. “And cover for each other and scramble and dive and attack and play off your instincts. That’s what the game’s going to be for a while.”
Utah Valley at Kentucky
What: Men’s basketball season opener
Where: Rupp Arena
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Series: First meeting