Amid a brutal eight-day stretch for his Kentucky basketball team — complete with losses to Michigan State and Gonzaga — John Calipari kept falling back on an argument that was met with eye-rolling and disbelief.
Why did his Wildcats look so out of sync in the only two games they played against top-flight rivals — particularly on offense?
To paraphrase what the British coach said several times over those eight days: “We didn’t train together.”
That apology prompted a collective “Huh?” from everyone who heard.
Yes, the team’s star player — reigning international of the year Oscar Tshiebwe — was out for a month with a knee injury before returning to practice the day before the Michigan State game. Yes, the team’s starting point guard — All-League senior Sahvir Wheeler — had been in and out of practice late in the preseason while he was dealing with his own knee injury. And yes, another expected key player on this Kentucky team – second forward Daimion Collins – was forced to withdraw from the program for several days following the unexpected death of his father in the week leading up to the start of the season.
All of this meant three key Wildcats were unable to join their teammates on the court at a pivotal point in preseason. But Caliparis’ continued attempts to portray Kentucky’s less-than-stellar play in their biggest games as a symptom of those earlier absences clearly rang hollow.
This is, after all, the most experienced team Calipari has had in 14 seasons in Kentucky, a roster peppered with players who have played at a high level in college basketball, including several who have been in the British system for several years. More importantly, this group spent weeks together throughout the summer, training together in August coupled with a trip to the Bahamas, where the Cats played four exhibition games and looked like a genuine contender for the national title.
So, with all that extra practice time, with all those veteran players, how did Calipari manage a team that didn’t even “know the plays,” as he said of them last week. He apologized that Tshiebwe and others were out, but he never really explained why it should be so important.
Finally, following Wednesday’s North Florida crackdown — and perhaps feeling his earlier excuses weren’t being taken seriously — the coach went into a little more detail.
Calipari said the practices surrounding this Bahamas trip — including the games themselves — were more about building “team camaraderie” and less about actual Xs-and-Os against Michigan State and Gonzaga-caliber opponents.
“None of the things we’re running now really went down there,” he said. “The purpose of traveling to the Bahamas is to play competitions. Who will fight in such situations? Who isn’t afraid to snap shots when the lights are on? And let’s get together and have fun and get to know each other. And that is exactly what the Bahamas trip is.”
In other words, summer for these Wildcats was more about getting used to playing with each other, trying out their teammates’ games, and figuring out how the pieces might fit together. In autumn it should actually be about the actual basketball. And, Calipari says, with Tshiebwe, Wheeler and Collins all on hiatus, his Cats never really got to until the actual games had already started.
“That’s why I kept saying, ‘We’re going to need a little time.’ I’m not happy that we lost two games. I want to win every game I coach,” Calipari said Wednesday night.
The British coach had declined to go into detail despite having had many opportunities to do so before. One of his veteran players, CJ Fredrick, first articulated those thoughts during a meeting with reporters Tuesday morning.
“The differences — when we were preparing for the Bahamas, we were just out there learning how to play together,” he said. “We didn’t incorporate any of our sets that we run in the season. It was all based on feelings and stuff like that. So when we come back and Oscar walks out and then Sahvir walks out – and that time is (should be) when we bang our sets. And we learn to grind. With three minutes what we run. And such things.
“So when Sahvir and Oscar are out – two big plays – a lot of things change.”
What’s next for Kentucky?
Though Tshiebwe is still out for the first two games of the UK regular season, the Wildcats thought those games were easier than the practice sessions before. Of course, those games were also against Howard and Duquesne, two overmatched opponents.
Once Kentucky reached Michigan State and Gonzaga, the opposite was true. The games were tougher than the training and the British players said that shouldn’t happen, even against the elite competition.
Of course, the coaches noticed that too. They went to the Kentucky players and told them what they saw. The British players talked about it among themselves and found a solution. Now that everyone was healthy, they wanted to exercise more. Get yourself back on the same page by playing with and against your teammates at game speed.
“And it’s the right thing to do,” Calipari said Monday on his weekly radio show. “Let’s go five against five. We haven’t been able to do that for a long time.”
It starts now.
Kentucky has five days off between Wednesday’s North Florida game and Tuesday’s Bellarmine game. The team’s trip to London against Michigan is scheduled for next weekend.
The Cats also have more than three months until the postseason begins.
“This is the best time to study. It’s November,” said Fredrick. “Obviously competitors – I hate to lose. … We hate to lose. But at the end of the day, it’s November. And those are the experiences that will help you at the end of the season.”
At this point, many Kentucky basketball fans — as well as outside observers — are in “we have to see it to believe it” mode. Calipari’s claims probably still won’t hold much water for those who’ve bought into the hype surrounding this Wildcats team and watched them trudge through their two biggest games yet.
But it’s not just the British coach who says that. The players feel that too.
“I don’t want to apologize, but Oscar was injured. There were people outside,” said senior forward Jacob Toppin. “So if you don’t practice with guys like that for a couple of weeks – and go through plays and understand how to act with them – it’s going to mess things up. So just having Oscar back, having our whole team back and being able to do that – it’s going to come. We’re working on it. We’ve been working on this since the Gonzaga game. So if we continue to work well together, if we just keep working at it, it will get better.”
Calipari also accepted the blame on Wednesday evening. The fact that some of his players didn’t know the team’s moves, that he couldn’t answer some basic questions about what the Cats were trying to do – there’s no excuse for that.
“You ask them the question and they can’t answer it. That means that as a teacher you weren’t doing your job,” Calipari said. “You must be able to answer the question. … So we talk about it every day now. I ask them questions: ‘What should we do?’ Because you think they know. And if you think they know something, you’re always wrong.”
Playing against teams like Howard and Duquesne and South Carolina State and North Florida isn’t going to tell a coach much about their team. These cats had enough sheer talent to overcome these overpowered foes fairly easily. Michigan State and Gonzaga play? That is different.
“It’s hard when you’re winning when you’re 30 or 40,” Calipari said. “It’s hard because you get drunk. Like, ‘We’ll be fine.’ Every time we failed against Michigan State and Gonzaga, they scored. every time. That’s what good teams do. So you have to play a good team and let them do that, so you can get with your team and put them on tape and say, ‘You’re not going to beat someone who’s good if we don’t get this right.'”
Kentucky still has plenty of time to get this right. The Cats have the best player in the nation and plenty of talent around them. And everyone associated with this team still seems to have the same expectations they had before Tshiebwe fell to the ground with that knee injury in October.
“I love this group,” Calipari said Wednesday night. “They are great teammates. There are still some guys who are unsure of themselves. Most of them have a long way to go. Some of them want to play differently than this team expects of them. …
“We are in the works. We will work every day. We have some time.”