UK Men's Basketball

March Merriment? To survive and advance, teams must make room for fun.

Coach Cal: If I felt ‘relieved’ to win, it’s time to retire

Kentucky Coach John Calipari explains why he didn't feel relieved to beat Wofford in the NCAA Tournament.
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Kentucky Coach John Calipari explains why he didn't feel relieved to beat Wofford in the NCAA Tournament.

As his five-year wait to play in the NCAA Tournament neared an end, Kentucky strongman Reid Travis received a text message from his high school coach. Dave Thorson offered advice in the form of a reminder.

“Knowing Reid as I do, he was probably getting shots up and lifting,” Thorson said. “The guy is relentless in his pursuit of winning and of driving teams. And I just reminded him to step back for a second and have some fun. . . . To enjoy it because he’s worked so hard to get to the point that he was.”

The importance of having fun can get lost in an event weighted with make-or-break importance. After all, it’s March Madness, not March Merriment.

Yet, the need to make merry has gotten mentioned repeatedly this year. Never mind a double-double. Can you make someone double over in laughter?

“It’s crucial,” UK associate coach Kenny Payne said of the fun factor. That’s especially true for a relatively young Kentucky team with heady national championship ambitions.

“How they process a lot of this and how they feel is usually what you live and die with,” Payne said. “So they have to have fun.”

After his players sprayed him with water in celebration of a second-round victory over Purdue, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said, “If it makes them happy, I can deal with it, you know?”

North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said he put a premium on having fun.

“If it’s not fun for me, I’m gone,” he said. “Because the task, the pressure, the stress, it’s there all the time.”

Williams puts a priority on making time for fun. Before UNC played Gonzaga in the 2009 South Region semifinals, he suggested to Mark Few that the two coaching staffs share some non-basketball fun. Not the night before the game, Williams made sure to point out, but 48 hours before tip-off.

“You can’t be staring at the tape machine all the time,” he said.

Angela Fifer, a mental performance consultant based in Pittsburgh, said that having fun at the NCAA Tournament is a paradox.

“It’s really serious,” she said. “It matters. And it’s really serious for coaches because it’s their careers. The paradox is how do you do something that matters so much and is so important through having fun.”

There’s no one formula. Travis is “relentless,” as Thorson said. Teammate Keldon Johnson seems fun-loving. Each personality must remember to have fun.

“I say stick to who you are,” Fifer said. “If you’re the cut-up class clown guy, then maybe humor and making other people laugh, that’s relaxing.”

When told of Travis waiting five years to play in an NCAA Tournament that concludes with the Final Four in his hometown, Fifer reacted with one word: “Wow.”

The key for Travis, she said, was to stay in the moment and not think of Minneapolis.

As a cut-up must be true to his or her sense of humor, so Travis said he’s having his form of fun.

“Playing is fun,” he said. “Winning games is fun. I don’t think there’s anything I’m adding to the experience. Getting on the court, that’s my enjoyment.”

Then and now

The debut of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) last fall sparked an outcry. How could Ohio State be No. 1? How could Loyola Marymount be No. 10? When was the last time mighty Kentucky was No. 61?

Cooler heads suggested this introductory release of the NET ratings on Nov. 25 should not be taken seriously. It was, at best, a dress rehearsal intended to familiarize people to the idea that the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) had been dropped from the process of assessing teams for the NCAA Tournament.

As an overview, RPI valued win-loss records of opponents and opponents’ opponents. NET, which uses more modern analytics, put greater importance on efficiency of play.

So let’s compare NET ratings on Nov. 25 with where teams stood going into the NCAA Tournament on March 17.

Kentucky improved from No. 61 to No. 6.

Other teams that rose dramatically include Louisville (from 117 to 22), Wofford (103 to 13), Ole Miss (93 to 36) and LSU (67 to 14).

Of course, some teams fell dramatically. Ohio State went from No. 1 to No. 55. Loyola Marymount, a focus of puzzlement on Nov. 25, dropped from 10 to 142.

And the rating of some teams remained relatively as steady as the North Star. Virginia started at No. 2 and finished No. 1. Teams that improved by three spots included Duke (six to three) and Gonzaga (five to two).

Among the teams that experienced slight dips were Michigan State (seven to eight), Virginia Tech (nine to 11) and Auburn (16 to 18).

Patience

Yes, Vanderbilt became the first team since 1953-54 to have a winless record in SEC play. Still, the decision to change basketball coaches came as a surprise.

It was Bryce Drew’s third season as coach. Two years ago, he became the first coach to debut as Vandy coach by leading the Commodores to an NCAA Tournament. A season-ending injury to freshman point guard — and presumed NBA Draft lottery pick — Darius Garland in November proved insurmountable in a season when seven SEC teams received NCAA Tournament bids.

Late in the season, Drew mentioned that his father, Homer Drew, had losing records in his first five seasons as Valparaiso coach. In a three-year span, the team was 14-68 (5-39 in league play). Twenty years later, Valpo named its court for Homer Drew.

Other examples of patience paying off include two coaching icons.

John Wooden won 10 national championships as UCLA coach. But he did not advance to his first Final Four until his 14th season at UCLA. In his first 13 seasons, UCLA played in three NCAA tournaments. The Bruins did not win a game in the NCAA Tournament until the consolation round in Wooden’s eighth season as coach.

Mike Krzyzewski got off to a slow start as Duke coach. In his first three seasons leading the Blue Devils, the teams had a combined record of 38-47 (13-29 in the ACC). Subsequently, of course, he’s won five national championships.

Such patience is not in abundant supply nowadays.

Looking ahead

The Coaching 101 textbook must have a chapter titled Don’t Look Ahead.

In this sense, Bruce Pearl of Auburn is an exceptional coach. He likes to talk about making history be it in the game at hand or a future game.

“These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to be able to make history,” he said Thursday. “I mean, I told our guys, when will any of us be able to say that we’re four games away from a national championship? And so I want them to look ahead. I want them to dream and understand what’s possible and have them say why not us?”

‘A rich man’

During his news conference Thursday, Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson spoke highly of former UK Coach Tubby Smith.

“Anytime something of significance happens in my life, there’s two people to either call or text me right away,” Sampson said. “One is Tubby. And the other is Rick Barnes. . . .

“My father used to say if you have one friend, one friend in your life, you’re a rich man. Well, I’ve got a bunch, none that’s closer to me than Tubby or Rick.”

A generous man

Kelvin Sampson began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State.

Sampson credited Heathcote for helping him start his head coaching career as an assistant at Montana Tech and then head coach at Washington State.

“Until Jud died, he always gave (Montana Tech) a thousand dollars a year for their booster club,” Sampson said. “That’s the way he was.”

Correction

A note last Sunday about the Final Four site contained an error. The note involved a $4.6 million project to install curtains to block the natural light coming through the roof of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The roof is made of translucent plastic material that lets in natural light to give the enclosed stadium an outdoor feel. But for the Final Four, officials wanted consistent lighting on the entire playing surface. So curtains were installed to cover the ceiling.

The note should have read that U.S. Bank Stadium manager Patrick Talty lamented the installation of curtains because that would take away the stadium’s distinguishing feature.

But Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority chairman Michael Vekich welcomed the curtains as a way to make U.S. Bank Stadium more viable as a host site for more events.

Happy birthday

To Saul Smith. He turned 40 on Thursday. . . . To Sean Woods. He turned 49 on Friday. . . . To former UK assistant Ralph Willard. He turned 73 on Friday. . . . To former UK football coach Hal Mumme. He turned 67 on Friday. . . . To Johnathan Davis. He turned 50 on Saturday. . . . To former LSU Coach Johnny Jones. He turned 58 on Saturday. . . . To DeAndre Liggins. He turns 31 on Sunday (today). . . . To Erik Daniels. He turns 37 on Monday. . . . To Chris Gettelfinger. He turns 61 on Monday. . . . To Brian Long. He turns 27 on Tuesday.

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