UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky program has bite to go with Calipari's bark

UK coach John Calipari in the second half of the University of Kentucky vs. University of Georgia basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 in Athens, Georgia.  Photo by David Perry | Staff
UK coach John Calipari in the second half of the University of Kentucky vs. University of Georgia basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 in Athens, Georgia. Photo by David Perry | Staff HERALD-LEADER

In touting Kentucky basketball's exceptionalism, Coach John Calipari noted the mail he receives from four-legged fans.

"I have dogs send me letters," Calipari said Friday. "And they put their paw prints on it, and their pictures."

Letters from dogs, humans, and, presumably other animals, vegetables and minerals containing a return address, Calipari said he or his office staff may answer.

When asked what the dogs had to say, Calipari evoked memories of White Fang on the Soupy Sales children's show circa 1964.

"He was saying, 'Ruff-ruff, ruff-ruff-ruff,'" Calipari said. "And I said, 'Ruff, ruff, ruff-ruff."

Of course, Kentucky will try to be ruff and ready in Saturday's game at LSU. But in assessing the game, Calipari stressed that he wants UK players to concentrate on what UK must do. Opponents will compete and play well. "I expect LSU to come out and play a good game," he said. "I expect them to play better than they have all year."

But even with such a performance, LSU will not be Kentucky. Neither will all other programs that surely don't need a high-pitched whistle to communicate with some fans.

"You want to be on your own playing field," Calipari said in pitching the uniqueness of Kentucky basketball.

That exceptionalism is part of UK's recruiting effort, he said.

"I tell families, 'You won't hear me or my staff talk about another program,'" Calipari said. "If we do, it's positives about that coach. I don't worry about anybody else.

"What you're trying to do in everything you do is separate."

Kentucky wants to be better than the rest on the court, in its facilities, in classroom performance, the UK coach said.

This separate-and-unequal concept extends to television coverage. Earlier this month, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings questioned the fairness of Kentucky never having to play a Thursday-Saturday tandem of games in a week, as permitted by the Southeastern Conference's rights package with ESPN. The all-sports network often picks Kentucky for its marquee Tuesday night games, thereby making UK ineligible to play on the Thursday of the same week.

"Why all the TV games?" Calipari said before answering his own rhetorical question. "Because we rate so high. We rate the highest in the country. ... Everybody wants to see us."

CBS spokesman Jennifer Sabatelle confirmed Calipari's claim. She said the two highest-rated college basketball games on CBS so far this season were Kentucky games against North Carolina and Louisville.

Calipari acknowledged a downside to Kentucky's exceptionalism. For one thing, the scrutiny is constant.

"It's a different deal here," he said. "You can't hide. I can't hide. My players can't hide."

This echoed a thought expressed by Al McGuire in the 1980s. McGuire said that being Kentucky coach was like being Wilt Chamberlain. "You can't hide," he said.

LSU Coach Trent Johnson noted the extremes some observers go to nitpick Kentucky's team.

"I just sort of laugh at it," he said. "When guys on the national level say Kentucky's weakness is their point guard.

"Really? Teague is about as good (as any) point guard in the country. There may be two point guards you may take over him."

In recruiting Johnny O'Bryant, Johnson said he gained a working knowledge of Teague.

"It's like a microscope," he said of the scrutiny focused on Kentucky. "They're trying to find something wrong. So they're going to pick on Teague. How many guys in the country would take Teague? Is there 332 Division I schools? Probably 330 would take him. He'll play after college."

Meanwhile, Teague and Kentucky continue in this typically stellar season.

In trying to prevent his players from relaxing or pausing, Calipari said he introduced "wrinkles" into Thursday's practice. Hockey Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman was famous for keeping his high-achieving teams on alert for the unexpected.

To break the routine, Calipari said he wanted the UK players to be "off kilter." Plus it made the UK coach "able to scream a little bit," he said.

Calipari welcomed the idea of conveying the exceptionalism of Kentucky basketball when the school names his successor.

"I'll tell the next guy after he accepts the job, and he's in the seat," he said.

But, Calipari added, the pluses outweigh the negatives. He did not mention the $3 million-plus annual salary that surely makes the scrutiny tolerable.

"The other side of it is you're coaching in a program where no one cares," he said. "If it's football signing day, they're not going to the game."

The day-to-day coaching can obscure the exceptionalism of Kentucky basketball, Calipari said.

"This may be the best job in our profession," he said. "In this sport."

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