Watching a college football game this month gave John Calipari an idea. Maybe Army taking No. 11 Michigan into overtime could show his Kentucky basketball players how discipline and desire can counter superior talent and recruiting hype.
“How does Army stay in the game with Michigan in the Big House?” Calipari said a few days after the game. “Were any of the Army players recruited by Michigan or any other Power Five (team)? How did they do it?”
Then Calipari answered his own question.
“Great execution,” he said to explain Army’s competitiveness, “because they had to. And they weren’t delusional about what they had to do to try to win and, really, survive. Do it together.”
Maybe another factor played a part in Michigan’s harder-than-expected 24-21 overtime victory over visiting Army, Calipari said. “I don’t know this to be true, but maybe the other team (Michigan) may be a little arrogant. Before the game (saying) ‘They can’t beat us. Not good enough. We’re all All-Americans.’”
It did not sound coincidental that Kentucky’s roster includes five McDonald’s All-Americans, two other players ranked among the nation’s top 15 prospects in their classes, another player who was a Kentucky Mr. Basketball and three other players (including two walk-ons) who scored 1,000 or more points in high school.
“My job is to make sure you as an individual and this team never becomes arrogant,” Calipari said. “That every game we play is a dogfight. Every practice we’re in is a dogfight.”
Calipari said he attributed any slippage as summer workouts continued to arrogance.
“If I see habits that take them back to those first two weeks, that’s arrogance . . . ,” the UK coach said. “That means you think you’re good enough playing the way you play. I’m not going to allow it. It’s not happening. They’ve got to think different. Their minds have to process things different. They’ve got to look at things different.”
Calipari mentioned Anthony Davis as an example to follow. Davis came to UK in 2011 as a highly decorated prospect: McDonald’s All-American, co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic All-American Game, Parade All-American and No. 1 prospect on Scout.com’s list (and No. 2 on Rivals.com’s).
“He was not poison-spoiled before he came here,” Calipari said of Davis. The UK coach attributed this to Davis being just another guard until a growth spurt took him to 6-foot-10. Calipari mentioned two Canadians — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray — as players not poison-spoiled.
“They weren’t poisoned and told, ‘You’re everything; you’re the best ever; you’re this; you’re that,’” Calipari said.
During the recruiting process, the UK coaches try not to inflate the egos of prospects, Calipari said. Instead, the pitch is about how difficult playing for Kentucky is, about how competitive practices are.
“But they still think they’re going to come here and do (a star turn) sometimes . . . ,” Calipari said. “They get here and, ‘Whew, these dudes can play, too.’ Yes! And the culture is a bunch of good guys coming together who are good people. Really good players that understand we compete every day. We are about one another.
“The guys that come saying, ‘This is about me. I don’t need to be coached. Play 2-3 zone. I’m good,’ in the process of recruiting they don’t come here.”
When asked if he had to rebuild a ballyhooed player’s swagger if success is not immediate, Calipari said that it depends on the individual.
“If they are delusional about what they are, that’s usually where the issue is,” he said. “We try to deal with that in the recruiting process.”
Calipari recalled PJ Washington. A productive freshman season (10.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg), but not the stuff to make a McDonald’s All-American/top 20 national prospect strut.
“OK year his freshman year,” Calipari said. “He was good enough. But he needed to come back, and he put it on himself, like, ‘I gotta do this.’
“That’s what you want all these kids to do. They’re responsible for them.”
Important upcoming dates
Sept. 25: Big Blue Madness campout begins
Sept. 27: Big Blue Madness ticket distribution
Oct. 1: Media Day
Oct. 6: Pro Day
Oct. 11: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 16: SEC Media Day
Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage
Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College
Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State
Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State