Sidelines with John Clay

Q&A: John Calipari and seniors preview Kentucky basketball’s game with UCLA

Transcript of Kentucky coach John Calipari along with seniors Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder talking at press conference on Thursday at the FedEx Forum about Friday’s NCAA Tournament game between UK and UCLA:

Q. Dominique, what’s the difference between the Kentucky team that lost to UCLA in December and the team that will face them tomorrow?

DOMINIQUE HAWKINS: Yeah, I feel like this team, we definitely focus more on our defense, and our defense has definitely improved. Earlier on, I felt like we just broke down a lot, and it was early in the season, so you have a lot to change early on.

Q. Derek, what does playing tight tournament games do for you guys, particularly the last game against Wichita State? Do you derive anything that you can use going forward?

DEREK WILLIS: I think it just started back in the season. Honestly when people were kind of concerned we weren’t beating teams by 20, 30 points, and we’d come away with probably six, ten-point margins, and not typical leads we would finish games with, but still, I think it just prepared us for postseason play and being in environments. Every environment we went and played in was crazy. It all just prepared us for postseason. And taking away from last weekend, the same exact thing, felt comfortable in situations, and I think that’s just kind of how we’ve been prepared all season long, so yeah.

Q. Derek, it seems like you guarded TJ Leaf quite a bit in that first match-up against UCLA. What do you remember about his game, and what do you have to do better this time around against him?

DEREK WILLIS: Yeah, I think after the UCLA game, I think back in the fall or whenever we played them, I kind of like -- I don’t want to say I took him for granted, I just didn’t know all the things he could do. And he kind of surprised me in a sense. I feel like we played sort of similar, and he’s a good player. So just got to take it how it is, and I feel like we’re peaking at the right time. We’re playing really well, and a lot of us are playing the best basketball we’ve ever played. It’ll be a fun game tomorrow, though. It’ll be fun.

Q. Derek, this is kind of an interesting location, just for you guys’ head coach, Coach Cal. He spent a lot of time here in Memphis. What’s the reception been like for you guys as a team and how have you enjoyed your experience the last few days?

DEREK WILLIS: Reception for us has been great. I feel like everybody that we’ve passed by, they’ve been smiling and saying congratulations, good luck, all that type stuff. Went out to eat the other night, people were fine there, and in public, everything has been awesome, honestly. It’s just been cool, yeah.

JOHN CALIPARI: We’re excited to still be playing.

Q. When you first think of Bam and Fox and Monk, what are some of the first things that come to mind?

JOHN CALIPARI: Special talents, beautiful spirits, and they -- teammates, sharers. There’s a lot of stuff that these kids do together, and it’s really unique.

Q. The elephant in the room for all of us here, all the people in Memphis, you’ve been back in town several times either recruiting or seeing old friends, and I believe this is your first public appearance back in Memphis. Some fans love you, some fans don’t. Is there anything you have to say to those fans after it’s been, what, seven, eight, nine years now since you left, and some of them want to hear one more thing from you to close this deal out.

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we met with friends last night. We had a reception, and a couple hundred people were there, and we got to really touch and feel and thank those people, and it was a special night. Ellen and I loved our time here, and it was a special time. I say this over and over again. This is not the kind of place where one person can do something. You have to all be together, and this community and the administration, the school just all came behind all of us, and it was a terrific ride. We loved our time here.

And I understand some people were upset that I left. I get that. I mean, and I accept that. It doesn’t bother me. I know last night we had a couple hundred people in that room, and close to tears, all of us, because we enjoyed the ride together. You know, it’s kind of special to be back. Been back many times, many, many times, but this is the first time coaching in this building since I left.

I think we did all right here. Had some good times.

Q. Were you offended at all when the University, seemed like they were going to celebrate your last year and then decided not to? Did that bother you at all?

JOHN CALIPARI: No, I was fine. I mean, like I said, we had a good time here, and that was during my enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, and there was not a whole lot that was going to steal my joy, and so it was fun. I know it was driven by some people, and that’s fine. I mean, it’s -- nothing can take away from the players, the coaches or any of us. Our friends last night, what that ride was about and what it meant.

Q. According to the numbers, this team of yours plays faster than some of the ones in the past. Is that because of the personnel or is it because of something you emphasize?

JOHN CALIPARI: We’ve got really fast players, and so you try to play to your strengths. But a lot of people have slowed us down. They’ve not let us play fast.

Early in the year, we were playing way faster than we are now. Some of that is because of how people are playing us. I’m not sure UCLA will try to slow you down. Let’s go. Let’s play to 120. I don’t think either one of us are going to change how we play. It’s too late in the season.

But we’ve got players that can play fast because they can really run fast. If you can’t run fast, you’re not playing fast.

Q. You’ve talked at various times about tweaks and reboots and all that, but how much do you add during the course of a season, particularly since the last UCLA game? How much more sophisticated do you play now?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we’ve had to learn to grind it out. We had to change defensively because of how, when you watched that tape, what we were doing. We had to tighten our defense and do some things differently. Offensively we had to create opportunities that weren’t going to be based on solely speed, and in that game, it kind of showed, but it was not only that game, there was a stretch of games: Kansas game and Florida on the road, Tennessee. I mean, there were a bunch of games, Georgia at home.

Our season is usually different because -- and I think UCLA went through the same thing. Early on, no one really knows you because we’re all new. By the middle of the season, they start figuring you out and they’ve got 15, 18 tapes to look at, and they can say, okay, here’s how you have to play them. And I think UCLA went through it when they hit their league. There were some teams that said, okay, this is how you must play them to have a chance to beat them. And that’s what happened to us.

And then you have to say as a coach, okay, here’s what they’re doing to us, what do we have to do? And that’s a normal season for us. That’s every year that I’ve been at Kentucky, because we’ve had new teams every year.

Q. Derek just said that TJ Leaf sort of surprised him in the first match-up with all that he can do and the different aspects of his game. What do you have to do better against him this time around?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he killed us on the backboard, too. It wasn’t just what he did, but he was more physical than we had expected. He drove the ball more than we expected. That includes our staff, too, now. Again, we knew they were good. We didn’t know how good they were. And I think a lot of teams in the country did not realize how good they were, how good their personnel is, how well they play together, how fit -- if you don’t think they’re physical, you’re wrong. They’re physical. So they’re a terrific basketball team.

Q. Steve Alford talked a lot about the meeting of the blueboods and all that, how grateful he was, how cool it is you guys have a series again. Can you talk about why that was important to you and talk about the fans and why the two programs with the most National Championships and how sexy it is for lack of a better word?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, they were one of the first teams I called when we were trying to put together the CBS Classic. We figured North Carolina, UCLA, and Kentucky should be in the same field, the same tournament, the same stuff together. Also, the history of both programs, you know, they deserved to play against each other. It’s not about proximity, you’re talking about two programs that have the most National Championships, the most wins; I would imagine NCAA appearances. I can go on and on and on.

And Steve and I are friends. I’ve known him for years. Always respected him as a coach, and I’ve respected him as a man. I know how he is with his family. I love seeing his dad. I just love that. I hate to tell you, his dad looks younger than he looks now after coaching UCLA a few years. My dad looks younger than I look after coaching Kentucky a few years. But I love seeing that. And he and I have known each other, and it’s worked out for both.

Now, they’ve gotten the better of us the last few, so maybe worked out better for UCLA than us.

Q. Having freshmen who consistently stay one year at your program but also guys who carry you deep into the Tournament and have emotional experiences with, how does that affect your relationship with those guys that it’s short?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you know, I’ve heard people say, well, you can’t create a relationship with a guy in a year. All I can tell you is anybody that goes and talks to our NBA guys or any of the players, this is a family, and they’re fiercely, fiercely loyal. John Wall came back, and when he landed, the coach said he said, “I’m back home.” DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony -- I can name any of the 30 guys. But we’ve had guys stay three years, four years like these guys. These three that were up here will have college degrees. You have guys that stayed one year that are coming back to finish up. Will they finish up right away? No. Brandon Knight has 60 college credits. He’ll come back when he chooses to come back. Each of these kids have lifetime scholarships. If you choose to leave after a year, you can always come back. If you choose to say two years, three years, we’re here for you. This is solely based on them, and that’s why the relationships are the way they are.

Some people get married after six months because they know this person is more about me than himself, and I feel the same. We’re getting married, and they’re together 50 years. Others, you need three years to really start trusting each other. That’s fine.

But you know, what we’re doing here is right for these kids. I wish I could coach them four years. I wish I had some of the -- think of some of the teams I would have had if we had guys for four years. You don’t think I want that? Oh, he wants everybody to leave. What, are you crazy? I’d love them to stay, but I’m not going to ask them to stay for me, and I’m not -- when kids choose to leave, it’s based on what they want for themselves and their families.

Q. You honestly won a lot of games here. When you walk out there, there’s no banner for the last time, and I’m wondering, given that they never proved that the University of Memphis knew anything or that you had anything to do with it, should that banner be hanging here? Have you thought about that?

JOHN CALIPARI: I haven’t, but I would say that there’s nothing that can take away what that run was about for all of us, including the city. It was a special time. I mean, special kids. Antonio Anderson last night hit me, and Robert Dozier hit me, and I know Chris Douglas is -- it’s unfortunate, but I’ll tell you what, that was a great run.

Q. Would you have done anything differently with the way you left and kind of the way you handled it or didn’t handle it?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, I had been talked to probably by six other universities during my time here, and three had offered jobs and a couple I considered. But Kentucky is one that you leave for. It just is.

Could I have done -- I don’t remember the whole -- it was eight years ago. I struggle to remember my players’ names. I usually call them by numbers right now. So I don’t remember all of it. But there was no intent to offend anybody. It was just -- it’s Kentucky. It’s Kentucky.

At the enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, I wish I would have said something different. When I talked to -- they asked me about Kentucky, being at Kentucky, what does it do? My intent was to say, the Power Five, to be able to be in those leagues, that’s what the advantage is, and I can’t remember exactly how I said it. I think I said something about a little table, and everybody became offended. And they could have been offended at UMass. But I didn’t mean a program. This program and UMass became No. 1 in the country, both of them, No. 1 in the country.

What I meant was the Power Five advantage, if you’ve coached in any other league, is enormous. You must play a non-conference schedule if you’re non-Power Five that’s off the chain. You must win every league game. You’ve got to scratch and claw and do whatever to be significant. If you lose a league game, ask Gonzaga, all of a sudden they’re saying Gonzaga shouldn’t be a 1. Gonzaga is an outstanding team. They lose one game, and you’re like, well, they’re not that good. That’s what I meant.

Never meant to offend, and at that time the question was about what has Kentucky done for you. We were in a Power Five. It gave you a chance to do what all these other teams have done over the years.

Q. You talked about the match-up with UCLA. Would you have expected to see them at this stage of the tournament, and what kind of a thing is this for fans, the two of you guys plus Kentucky here?

JOHN CALIPARI: They had the kind of season that if they hadn’t lost in the tournament, their league tournament, I thought they were going to be a 1 seed, but I’m not going to get into the seeds over the years. But I can remember all of them, and if you ask me about them, I could tell you the disadvantage of a higher seed playing in California against UCLA. I remember that one, too. I remember a higher seed playing in Houston and playing Texas. In Houston?

I remember a higher seed playing Texas A&M in San Antonio. I remember being an 8 seed and having to play Wichita State. I’ll remember all of them.

Playing this game is kind of how it played out. And I will say, I thought the Committee this year, because they were more transparent, it was the best -- the least arguments that we’ve ever had in the last eight years that I can remember. So I would tell them to be more transparent and keep being transparent. Talk about league tournaments before they’re played, what is the significance of a league tournament this year? Tell us all.

The S curve, so that we all know. We can all see it. We can do an S curve. I mean, the more transparency, the less arguments, the less -- it’s about the games.

This thing right here, other than I’m in Memphis, and I knew I would get some Memphis questions, this is about two unbelievably talented teams. That’s what this is, and people are going to watch this game, not because I’m coaching and not because I came back to Memphis and not because Steve is coaching. They’re going to watch it because this is a talented two teams. Both teams. And it should be a lot of fun.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports


When: Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET approximate

Where: FedEx Forum in Memphis

TV: CBS (WKYT) with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson

Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

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