UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky basketball newcomers say it's all about trust

Nerlens Noel was interviewed during the University of Kentucky basketball media day held on the practice floor in the Joe Craft Center on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 11, 2012. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Nerlens Noel was interviewed during the University of Kentucky basketball media day held on the practice floor in the Joe Craft Center on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 11, 2012. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

Another freshman-oriented team. More expectations that a collection of highly regarded newcomers from divergent parts of the country will mesh into an effective unit. Quickly.

Now beginning his fourth season as University of Kentucky basketball coach, John Calipari has made the extraordinary seem, well, ordinary. It is expected the latest batch of Kiddie Cats will win most of their games and contend for a national championship.

That was a given at Thursday's Media Day gathering. How does this come about annually? Calipari and the players said it is a matter of trust. The players believe or, to borrow from sporting parlance, they buy in.

"They're going to do whatever I ask them to do," Calipari said. "... I've got to hope I ask them to do the right things."

Success breeds trust. The players see Kentucky win the 2012 national championship and advance to the last two Final Fours. They see Calipari/Kentucky produce 15 NBA Draft picks in the last three years.

As Nerlens Noel, one of this season's highly acclaimed freshmen, said, this produces "100 percent trust.

"Coach Cal is a really influential person. His track record speaks for itself."

As Calipari is wont to say, Kentucky is a players-first program. UK's much-discussed reliance on so-called one-and-done players best shows how Calipari risks sustained team success by all but shoving players toward the NBA. The recruiting success each year makes any risk negligible.

"They're chasing their dreams," Calipari said, "and it's not hurting us."

Calipari not only encourages players to enter the NBA Draft after one season, he famously said two years ago he'd wrestle John Wall to the floor if the then-freshman flash preferred not to enter the 2010 NBA Draft.

"That's why he's a players-first coach," Noel said. "... When he's speaking, it's all ears."

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla suggested last year that the confidence players have in Calipari helps explain how great players can be molded into a team.

"There's an art form to coaching great players," Fraschilla said. "John's a Michelangelo when it comes to that. They trust him. He has their best interests at heart. When you trust, you allow him to coach you."

The building of trust begins in the recruiting process, Calipari and players said.

Julius Mays, a graduate student who transferred from Wright State to play one more season, initially doubted the idea of joining Kentucky's team. He believed UK might only be looking for a body to fill out the roster. Calipari convinced him otherwise.

Mays described Calipari's approach as "assertive, eye to eye."

The UK coach challenged Mays. "What really got me was he told me Kentucky isn't for everybody," the player said.

Calipari used Eric Bledsoe as an example, Mays said. The UK coach noted how Bledsoe did not want to come to Kentucky because another point guard, Wall, had already committed.

"He told Eric Bledsoe, 'If you don't want to compete, this isn't the place for you,' " said Mays, who acknowledged how that approach incited his competitive nature and contrasted with other recruiting pitches he'd heard. As UK fans know, Calipari persuaded Bledsoe to join Wall.

"In college basketball there's a lot of fakers out there," Mays said.

For another example, Calipari, who isn't allowed to mention specific players in this fall's recruiting haul, mentioned a visit last week to (wink, wink) see perhaps two prospects: Read Andrew and Aaron Harrison.

"I want to tell you I see you guys playing ... and competing so hard, that it's scary," Calipari said of his message on the visit. "And I've also seen you when you act like it doesn't matter and you're just going through the motions. I want you to know — in front of your family — that players will not be on my court the minute I see it. He's out. He will not play. Do you understand that?"

Bluntness apparently plays well. Calipari lays it on thick (or is that thin?). "I'm not going to B.S. you," the UK coach said.

Freshman guard Archie Goodwin was convinced. Calipari won over his mother, MeLesha, the player said.

"That's big," he said, "because mom doesn't trust too many people."

Of Calipari's almost eagerness to send players to the NBA ASAP, Goodwin said, "That's why it's a no-brainer to come here, where a coach is not worrying about his own accolades."

To give the day's theme of basketball verite an ironic twist, Calipari said veteran players would tell the newcomers that the coach's nice-guy approach to workouts would change as the season approaches. "All friendly and happy-go-lucky," he said, would give way to a "different animal."

The players said they were ready for more reality, Calipari-style.

"He's going to scream at them and yell at them," Jon Hood said of Calipari's upcoming interaction with the newcomers. "Actually coach them the way he wants to. ...

"And not what everybody sees."

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