Kentucky frosh trying, and it’s a start

February, 1, 2014
Feb 1
7:39
PM ET
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- On Tuesday night, after Kentucky’s loss at LSU, sophomore forward Alex Poythress assembled the Wildcats in his Baton Rouge hotel room. On the agenda was the most tried and true of sports traditions, something struggling teams attempt so often it’s a cliché: a players-only meeting.

No one shouted. No one argued. “It wasn’t heated,” freshman center Dakari Johnson -- who, in one much-discussed example, was left lying on the floor by his teammates after a hustle play Tuesday night -- told reporters this week. Instead, one by one, the Wildcats just talked. They shared their opinions. They apologized to each other for not playing hard. They resolved to do better next time.

It was the kind of thing a coach might love to hear about his players. John Calipari’s response?

[+] EnlargeKentucky
Dak Dillon/USA TODAY SportsJames Young (1) shot well from 3-point range and had 20 points in Kentucky's win over Mizzou.
“Don’t care,” he said Friday. “Let’s play.”

On Saturday, the Wildcats played. UK recorded its most impressive performance of the season -- an 84-79 win at Missouri that was one part offensive blitzkrieg and one part endurance run. The last time Calipari’s team looked this good, and this cohesive, came more than a month ago in their home win over Louisville. They’ve never played this well on the road.

So, hey: That team meeting worked, right?

“Yeah, it helped us, I guess,” Calipari said.

The Kentucky coach delivered that, his shortest answer of Saturday afternoon’s postgame news conference, with a smirk and a shake of the head and a layer of sarcasm as dense as the ice that blanketed Columbia, Mo., all weekend. It was the verbal eye-roll a frustrated father gives a son's sudden, late-teenage epiphany that maybe girls would be more interested in someone who doesn’t spend so much time in the basement playing "Battlefield 4." Gee, kid, you think?

That, in short, is the dynamic Calipari has been dealing with all season. For as much time as he’s spent coaching his team on matters of actual basketball -- on the spacing and ball movement and fluidity they so thrillingly displayed in Saturday’s 84-points-in-67-possessions outburst -- he has spent even more time straining to explain to his young group the mental basics most elite college basketball teams take for granted.

Such as why it’s important to play hard on very possession. Or why your emotions should hinge on the team’s performance and not your own. Why you point to your teammate when he gets you a bucket. Why you pick your teammates up off the floor. Why you have to care.

“I told them, ‘If I have to coach like I was 35 years old again, I will,’” Calipari said. “I was very much more aggressive, hands-on. Do you know what I mean by hands-on? Like grabbing, hands-on. ... I told them, ‘My teams play with fire. They play with emotion. They play with enthusiasm. And you will, or I won’t play you.' And that’s all I told them.”

Calipari also set up new rules for practice: If a player did something right -- a good pass, or a good screen or a good defensive rotation -- and no one paid him a compliment, the coach stopped practice until praise was delivered.

It paid obvious dividends Saturday, at least on the offensive end. Aaron and Andrew Harrison were engaged, aggressive and efficient. James Young worked hard off screens to find open shots and made 4-of-7 from 3. Julius Randle got him two of those shots with good spacing and pinpoint kick-outs and closed the game with a key series of rim attacks down the stretch.

They were far from perfect, especially defensively. Missouri guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown got 55 of their combined 61 points on a relentless series of right-handed drives to the rim, drives Kentucky didn’t adjust to until the closing moments. And the Wildcats’ transition defense, even on made baskets, was often nonexistent. But they managed to withstand the Tigers’ second-half frenzy, and escape with a big road win, all the same.

Just as telling, perhaps: When Kentucky reserve Dominique Hawkins fell to the floor Saturday, Alex Poythress and Andrew Harrison sprinted to his side.

“The stuff that anyone’s saying about this team and these players, they can change it,” Calipari said. “It’s not like, ‘Well, you can’t play.’ It’s that you don’t compete, you don’t play with enthusiasm, you don’t sprint, you’re into your own self. Well, you can change all that.”

Calipari might roll his eyes at his earnest, serious teenagers -- those kids and their team meetings, huh? But one way or another, the Wildcats seem to be getting the message, and making those changes, bit by frustrating bit.

“We weren’t trying to impress anybody,” Randle said. “It was just something that we needed to do.”

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