This 2013-2014 season arguably comes with the most pressure on any coach and team in history to win the National Championship for John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats. Despite the First Round NIT Loss at Robert Morris earlier this year, this recruiting class is the best ever and we have a good mix of veterans and sheer bodies to compete for spots. In other words, we’re stacked. And perhaps more important than the changing out and upgrading of some players, Coach Cal also underwent some change after last season’s debacle. Advantage Wildcats. Here are some excerpts of USA Today’s Kyle Tucker’s interview with Coach Cal.
Editor’s note: This interview occurred on Sept. 5, so any references to recent events are roughly a month old. Also, the questions are not exactly as asked; they’ve been worded for brevity and clarity.
What did you learn from last season and the 2012 team about coaching young teams that you can apply to this one?
“No. 1 thing is you have to have – you can’t do what I did last year and have eight kids on scholarship. You just can’t. What happens is, you know, people want to talk about just the competition – and it’s true; you can’t save these kids from competition. I can’t save my own children from competition. That’s the United States. That’s what we’re about. So, what I tried to do was like, ‘It’s his turn, it’s his turn. We just won the national title. I don’t want bring (too many new) kids – you know, let these (veteran) kids …’ You can’t do it that way. We had no competition.
“But more than that, there were guys that needed to be out of the game, and they knew it. Like Alex (Poythress) at times. So it’s kind of like you’re playing golf and it goes south so you try to play 27 more holes and it just gets worse. Your best bet is: when it started, go home, have a beer, laugh about it and then go out tomorrow and you play better. Well that happens if you have enough players. So it’s not just the competition. There were times Archie (Goodwin) needed to get his – ‘Just sit for awhile kid. I’m not mad at you. Just sit down.’ Well, we couldn’t do it. I did it, and I looked and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, go back in.’ You can’t do it that way. So I know there’s a number that’s too many, but you can’t do what we did a year ago. That was my own – I did it, you know? It’s what I did. It was my choice. And so, you look back and say we put the kids in a bad position on a lot of fronts.”
How do you help this year’s players not get too caught up in the hype, as some in 2012-13 eventually admitted they did?
“You had guys that were delusional, too, about who they were. And when we started practicing, we knew. After the Maryland game, like, ‘Guys, this is not what we’ve been coaching, this is not how we’ve been playing. (But) we don’t have a whole lot of good choices here.’ This team will be different. I worked them out the other day (and), you know, it’s what I was used to seeing. So I don’t think that will be a problem. The issue for us is going to be how quickly can we come together. Can we get in the kind of shape you have to be in to compete at the level we’re going to try to compete?
Can anything speed up or slow down the process of the players jelling as a team?
“Speeding it up is just: you get in games and they start feeling it faster than they normally do, but there’s a process here. I mean, it’s, you know – don’t know how many freshmen will start, but you could start anywhere from three to five. That just, they’ve not played together. We’re right now already showing them more of the dribble drive than we’ve had since my first year here. And so I’m showing them tape of some of my Memphis teams, how we played. But when I look at it, those guys had played it three years, except for Derrick Rose. The other guys played it three years.
“So it just – it takes time for things to develop. You hope it’s quicker than it should be. You hope your veterans, your sophomores, Alex and Willie , elevate so they can drag. But you just don’t know. I think the biggest thing: the conditioning, the toughness, the mental toughness, if that’s not where I think it is then that will slow down the process. But the other thing is just through experience. You’ve got to get on the court. You build your own self esteem. You build your confidence through demonstrated performance, and they’ve got to get on the court and do it.”
What’s your initial impression of Julius Randle, who you called an ‘alpha beast’?
“Oh, geez. In his workouts, he’s like – you know. And you know there are times where he wants to settle on the perimeter, be like a guard, but we were doing drills where he had to attack. He’s a little – he’s got to get to his right hand more ’cause you know how everybody’s going to play him: make him go right. They may even play him – and he can – but he’s more comfortable getting to his left. But when he missed it, his head was right back on the rim until it went in. Like, oh, my gosh. Then I tell the guys what happened two years ago was Michael dragged us to that level as a team, and that’s what I’m asking Julius to do. ‘Forget about everything else. Just do that right there and drag us. We’ll help you with all the other stuff. You don’t lose that.’ “
Alex Poythress was a lightning rod for fans last year. They praised and dogged him quite a bit more than any player I’ve seen in recent memory and I was among them. It was just maddening because he is so talented. Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News named him #2 among the Top 7 Players with pressure to perform.
Alex Poythress, 6-8 sophomore, Kentucky
2012-13 stats: 11.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 0.7 assists
That Poythress’ final statistics appear somewhat attractive demonstrates the danger of judging a player merely by the numbers. Because anyone with a keen eye who watched him last season, including the coach who chose to do without him at many crucial moments, was sure to recognize that Poythress was struggling to contribute to a winning effort.
Poythress’ numbers speak more to what he is capable of achieving as a basketball player than to what he already has accomplished. He shot 58.1 percent from the floor as a freshman and converted 42.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. Even so, many Kentucky fans already have moved on and are calling for freshman James Young to start at the small forward position.
Poythress probably would be best served as an undersized power forward, but that option no longer is available with the Wildcats adding freshman Julius Randle, who’ll be among the nation’s top players this season.
So Poythress is going to have to make it work as a small forward, and as the stats suggest there is every reason to believe he can manage it. But he didn’t on his first try. A perfect illustration of his inconsistency: In crucial road games at Arkansas and Georgia, he fouled out both times and played a combined 36 minutes. In a home game against Florida to close the regular season, he played 32 minutes and grabbed 12 rebounds.
He talked after games about accepting responsibility and growing up as a player, which was a consistent theme for coach John Calipari throughout the year in regards to Poythress. Now, he’s what passes for a veteran in the UK rotation. And he’ll have to show he can manage the small forward spot.