UK Men's Basketball

Basketball’s chaotic action can turn coaches’ box into mere suggestion box

Kentucky Coach John Calipari got his team’s attention during their game against Mississippi on Dec. 29 in Oxford, Miss.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari got his team’s attention during their game against Mississippi on Dec. 29 in Oxford, Miss. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Although Kentucky Coach John Calipari yelled “Drive! Drive!,” Malik Monk shot and — fortunately for UK — made a game-winning three-pointer against North Carolina. In the same game, De’Aaron Fox did not follow the coach’s instruction to pass the ball to Bam Adebayo.

An often-cited anecdote from UK basketball’s vast backlog of stories should snuff out any fear of a brewing insurrection. The story shows that there’s nothing unusual about the intentions of coaches and players not always being perfectly aligned.

As the story goes, it was the 1968-69 season. Several minutes passed in a game without Dan Issel touching the ball. Adolph Rupp called a timeout.

“He pretty much looked at (Mike) Casey and me and said, ‘Do you boys know what this boy’s name is?’” Mike Pratt recalled. “‘His name is Dan Issel. Please pass him the ball.’”

Nearly 50 years later, Issel still chuckles when asked about the incident. “That was his rather unsubtle way of saying, ‘Let’s go back to what we’ve been doing,’” he said. “‘Don’t try to win the basketball game by yourselves.’”

Two questions:

Teammates needed a reminder to pass to the program’s career scoring leader? Issel averaged 26.6 points that season, which is still the second-highest average for any UK player in any season.

Teammates needed a reminder to stick with a playing style devised by Rupp? He was the founding father of Kentucky basketball and, at the time, the winningest coach in college basketball history.

It happens, Pratt said. “It’s not like we did it on purpose with Dan.” Players get lost in the flow of a game. The opposing team’s defense invites a countermove.

Pratt offered another possibility. “You’d feel your oats out there … ,” he said. “You hit a couple shots and you figure, ‘Why not me? I’m hitting my shots.’ That kind of went through my mind. … I had some shots that went down. I said, ‘Why, jeez, I better get a couple more while I can. I’m on a roll.’ It wasn’t intentional.”

Plus, the frenetic nature of basketball all but mandates some freelancing.

“I’ve always been kind of suspect of coaches who don’t trust their players enough to have to stand up and call out every play,” Issel said.

Although coaches typically speak in authoritative tones, the players do not hear my-way-or-the-highway. Rex Chapman said that coaches offer “blueprints” rather than commandments.

Kenny Walker heard a “guideline” from a coach. “It’s an idea of what to do,” he said.

Walker said he and UK teammate Roger Harden — sort of the Adebayo and Fox of their time — improvised regularly.

“You have to respect the coach,” Walker said, “but you have to make split-second decisions, and go with it. And you can’t be afraid.”

After the North Carolina game, Calipari acknowledged in a genial way that players go off script.

UK fans with good memories might recall Rajon Rondo making a winning shot after straying from the play called by Tubby Smith. Even in the movies, players are more than mere obedient robots. In “Hoosiers,” Hickory player Rade Butcher defied his coach, played by Gene Hackman, by shooting before the requisite passes were made.

“There’s a lot of improvisation that goes on out there … ,” Chapman said. “Coaches yell all the time. You can’t pay attention to all of it.

“But what I know is you better make it work.”

When it works, an improvisation might cause a player to gain an added measure of respect from the coach, Walker said. Freelance success can mean the player has moxie. Better yet, in current basketball parlance, the player has taken “ownership.”

Butt freelance failure can mean the player won’t listen.

After Thursday’s victory at Ole Miss, Calipari saw a sloppy second half as evidence of a continuing lack of discipline. “We went back to a little AAU,” he said.

It’s important to note what Calipari did not say: The players were not rebelling. They were playing basketball, albeit not the kind of buttoned-down basketball usually required to beat top teams.

Issel scoffed at the notion of Kentucky players willfully ignoring their Hall of Fame coach.

“He’s the star there,” Issel said of Calipari . “He’s had some great players, and the number of players he’s put in the NBA is unbelievable. I don’t think Coach Cal will have any problems getting his message across.”

Easy to say

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy suggested that there’s no secret about how to play Kentucky: limit UK’s transition offense. Duh.

“A lot of times, people will say, ‘Man, if you can just get back and stop De’Aaron Fox in the open floor,’” Kennedy said. “Well, good luck with that.

“Of course, that makes a lot of sense.”

But saying it in preparing a game plan and doing it in the game are two different things.

“That’s like saying, ‘Let’s guard Russell Westbrook in the open floor,’” Kennedy said. “It’s hard to do. (Fox is a) special player in the open floor.”

This was on display at Ole Miss, especially early. Twelve of UK’s first 26 points came off the fast break.

“The tone of the game was set … ,” Kennedy said. “They were just running by us in transition early. Then we lost our composure.”

UK’s 20 points off fast breaks were one shy of the season high (21 against Arizona State).

Was game too big for Rebels?

Maybe there’s an advantage for Kentucky in regularly playing inspired opponents. As John Calipari likes to say, opponents treat a game against UK like a Super Bowl.

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy kind of suggested Kentucky’s players were better prepared for the big-game atmosphere Thursday night.

Kennedy had hoped his new backcourt — Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett — had gained sufficient big-game experience while playing for their former schools, New Mexico and Miami, respectively.

Neal and Burnett combined to make seven of 16 shots (none of four on three-point attempts). They also combined for seven assists and seven turnovers.

“People say was the game too big?” Kennedy said. “That’s a poor indictment on us. I would hope not, but maybe it was. Maybe we got guys who weren’t quite ready for (a big game), and we started doing things that were out of character.”

Keeping it unreal

This season’s Kentucky-Louisville game marked more than the 30th anniversary of Rex Chapman’s 26-point performance at U of L. It’s also been 30 years since then-UK Coach Eddie Sutton’s memorable comparison of the rivals’ basketball traditions. UK was the Big Brother, he said, and U of L the Little Brother.

The comment continues to irritate Louisville fans.

“That has never gone over well in Louisville because Louisville never looked at itself as Little Brother,” UK associate coach Kenny Payne said. “A lot of people took offense.”

Denny Crum, then in the midst of a Hall of Fame coaching career at Louisville, said he took no offense.

“I never got hung up on things that coaches said,” he said. “They always have ulterior motives. Almost always. It’s rare when they don’t.”

Father-coach

Before transferring to Ole Miss, Cullen Neal played three seasons for his father, Craig Neal, at New Mexico.

“I’ve experienced both sides of it,” the younger Neal said. “He was my coach, and he was my dad. We had to figure things out along the way. It was fun.”

Figure things out?

“The biggest thing was being a coach on the court and being a father off the court,” Neal said. “So when I would go home, he’d try to talk basketball, basketball, basketball. And I’d be, like, ‘Dad, c’mon. I’m trying to come over and have dinner.’”

‘Partly about them’

Kentucky fans are crazy. They revel in their craziness. But it seemed surprising that New Mexico fans could be rabid enough to all but force Cullen Neal to transfer.

It shouldn’t be surprising. Geoff Grammer, who covers the Lobos for the Albuquerque Journal, vouched for the keen interest New Mexico fans have for basketball. The school is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its home arena, affectionately known as The Pit. The Lobos have ranked in the top 25 in average attendance in each of those previous seasons.

“They understand it’s partly about them,” Grammer said of New Mexico fans. “I think because of that they feel they get to maybe dictate what happens, and I think that somewhat happened with Cullen.”

Happy birthday

To Travis Ford. He turned 48 on Thursday. … To Eloy Vargas. He turned 29 on Friday. … To Aminu Timberlake. He turns 44 on Sunday (today). … To Randolph Morris. He turns 31 on Monday. … To Irving Thomas. He turns 51 on Monday. … To former UK president Charles Wethington. He turns 81 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Next game

Texas A&M at Kentucky

9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

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