UK Men's Basketball

‘I’m blown away with it.’ Calipari’s success with freshmen impresses friends and foes.

John Calipari got his SEC Tournament wish

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari tells the media what he thanked his team for after UK defeated Florida 66-57 on Saturday, March 9, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Wildcats next play in the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari tells the media what he thanked his team for after UK defeated Florida 66-57 on Saturday, March 9, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Wildcats next play in the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

After Kentucky beat Florida last weekend, John Calipari received encouragement from an old adversary turned friend. John Chaney, who as Temple coach was caught on camera threatening to end Calipari’s life, called to say he liked how UK played in the second half.

To Chaney’s trained eye, the Cats displayed the qualities on offense that make for success in the NCAA Tournament: share the ball, attack the basket, get to the free throw line and rebound.

In essence, Chaney liked seeing Kentucky play with purpose.

“What gets my ire is when I look at games and after a while I will turn games off because I can’t see what the coach is planning to do,” Chaney said when contacted this week. “What strategy is afoot?”

Chaney did not turn off Kentucky’s game against Florida, which Calipari took as a compliment.

“You’re playing in a way you can succeed,” Calipari said in explaining Chaney’s message. Then the UK coach added, “and he’s right.”

That Calipari is again getting a team largely dependent on freshmen to play this way is nothing new. But with freshmen becoming increasingly a key component of many teams, appreciation for how Kentucky does this again and again grows.

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“I’m blown away with it,” Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis Jr., said Wednesday.

Davis, who made a point of mentioning that he wasn’t merely trying to butter up a possible Friday opponent, said he was impressed with the toughness freshmen like Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro displayed when UK won at Ole Miss last week. And the UK freshmen competed well against a veteran backcourt, the Ole Miss coach said.

“That’s what I’ve always admired about Cal,” Davis said. “He coaches those young guys. But he coaches his best players the hardest. It doesn’t matter what level. A lot of guys can’t do that to elite players. But he does it, and they accept it.”

Former Auburn Coach Sonny Smith, who now does commentary on radio broadcasts of the Tigers’ games, said this might be UK’s most cohesive team in the Calipari era.

“I don’t see how he does it . . . ,” Smith said. “Some of the other (teams) didn’t, but this team runs their offense and shares it with one another just like they’ve been playing together for years. That’s one thing he does that I don’t know if anybody else could do. Maybe they could take all freshmen that were great players and get them to play together. That might be one of his strongest points.

“I think this team plays together better than any (UK) team I’ve seen in a long time.”

Smith also noted that this rapid consensus building happens at a Kentucky program synonymous with unblinking fan interest. Every dribble by every freshman may be scrutinized.

“Fans that are so into their thing, you have more pressure on you than any freshmen in the country when you go there and play for John Calipari,” Smith said. “It’s expected. And if you don’t shoulder that load, then he takes it off of them.

“I don’t know how. But he might be the best in the business.”

Despite Kentucky’s annual transformation from a collection of high-profile recruits into an effective unit, the process is not without stumbles. Only last week Calipari seemed to show impatience when he said it was time for players to grow up.

The adjustments that freshmen must make in the first season of college basketball apply to Kentucky players. Davis spoke of the “wear and tear” that comes with daily practices. Of course, the games add more of the same.

Florida Coach Mike White pointed out the freshmen’s inexperience with the rigors of league play, detailed scouting reports, weight lifting and what he called the “individual negativity” that comes with the advancement to college basketball.

Individual negativity?

“They’re used to a certain amount of minutes and a certain amount of numbers and a certain amount of shots,” White said with a knowing smile. “It doesn’t always translate.”

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