UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky’s Calipari makes a wish for the NCAA Tournament

Coach Cal and the Cats react to Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament draw

University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari and basketball players Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson respond to the NCAA Tournament announcement.
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University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari and basketball players Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson respond to the NCAA Tournament announcement.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari has a wish he hopes will be granted in the NCAA Tournament. No, it’s not a rematch with Seton Hall or Duke.

“I wish we were a little more empowered than we are,” Calipari said on a Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference Monday.

A UK team more player-driven can better embody what sounds like the theme the Cats will take into March Madness: Play to the training.

During a news conference Sunday after the NCAA Tournament bracket announcement, Calipari explained.

“Don’t do what you want to do,” he said. “Don’t do what you did in high school. It does not work here.”

Kentucky is heading into the NCAA Tournament seeking their ninth National Championship. Here's a look back at how the program, along with Coach Calipari, has fared in March.

Play to the training meant not playing to the level of the opponent or becoming distracted by the NCAA Tournament setting, Calipari said. That kind of focus only lasts for about 15 minutes, he said.

“You’ve got to play to the training and conditioning,” Calipari added. “That you can do for 40 minutes. If you can play for 40 minutes, you have a chance to win every game.”

When asked why Kentucky has not been as much of a player-driven team as he’d like, Calipari cited fatigue rather than willful refusal.

“The game goes on,” he said. “They get a little tired.”

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl vouched for the importance of players investing themselves into a team effort.

“As a coach, I’ve won a lot of games, and helped my team win a lot of games,” he said. “But I’ve never won a championship. Players win championships. And I’m not trying to put it just on the kids like it’s their fault if you don’t.

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“But when they decide they’re going to do this, and there are enough pieces to do it, it can get done.”

A coach’s ability to influence a game is limited, Pearl said. At some point, the players must make an important difference.

“I can change defenses,” Pearl said. “I can make some play calls. And I can do my job.

“But when they look at each other in the eye and say, ‘We need three stops in a row, they get a better chance of getting three stops in a row than anything I can do in coaching.”

Calipari said he has seen signs of his players being invested in Kentucky’s success. He just wants more. He said he’s seen this empowerment displayed by PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Ashton Hagans.

“But it’s still not enough of that,” he said. “Now is the time.”

UK freshman guard Tyler Herro grabbed 13 rebounds in the Wildcats' blowout victory over Tennessee on Saturday night.

Calipari suggested that Kentucky’s offense is designed to develop a player’s sense of responsibility for team success.

“I keep (making an effort at) convincing them that we don’t run plays,” Calipari said. “‘We’re running an action to get you started, and then play.’

“That becomes a little more random and a little more of an empowerment to the team.”

And, with a dash of improvisation, a little more difficult for the opponent to defend.

Said Pearl: “When it’s player driven, in my experience, that’s when you have that championship team.”

Good preparation

Calipari was among several coaches who spoke of SEC competition serving as good preparation for the NCAA Tournament.

Varied personnel and approaches to the game make it less likely a postseason opponent will present a new strategic challenge, Calipari said.

SEC teams use different defenses (zones, man-to-man) and offenses (physical pounding inside, reliance on three-point shooting).

“You face it all within our league,” Calipari said. “I think it’s going to help all our teams going forward.”

Smart play

LSU freshman Javonte Smart has been cleared to play in the NCAA Tournament, interim coach Tony Benford said.

Smart was the recruit involved in the telephone conversation that led LSU to suspend Coach Will Wade.

“Javonte’s fine,” Benford said. “He’s ready to go. There shouldn’t be an issue.”

Not looking ahead

Kentucky is not the only team with a coach wanting his players to be thinking only of the first NCAA Tournament opponent and not the path for advancement.

To reach the Final Four, No. 3 seed LSU could potentially have to beat two-seed Michigan State and one-seed Duke in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games of the East Region.

“We’re going to focus on Yale . . . ,” Benford said of LSU’s first-round opponent. “And then we’ll worry about the next opponent if we’re fortunate enough to take care of Yale.”

‘We’re in trouble’

That Tennessee might lose to Auburn in the SEC Tournament championship game after beating Kentucky in an epic semifinal competition became quickly apparent to Coach Rick Barnes.

“Five minutes into the game, I turned to our assistants and said, ‘We’re in trouble,’” the Vols’ coach said.

Auburn beat Tennessee 84-64. It was the Vols’ third challenging game in three days following victories over Mississippi State on Friday and UK on Saturday.

UK’s NCAA Tournament opener

No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 15 seed Abilene Christian

What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional

When: 7:10 p.m. Thursday

Where: Jacksonville, Fla.

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 27-6, Abilene Christian 27-6

Series: First meeting

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