Kentucky Basketball: All-Access By Matt Jones

Kentucky granted Matt Jones, who now blogs for CBS sports as well doing Kentucky Sports Radio and ICN | 2 television and various other broadcast gigs access to several UK practices lately.  He has had two blogs up on CBS Sports for several days.  I am just now getting to them because, quite frankly, I was unaware of them until just yesterday.

The two posts are:

A third installment will be up sometime between now and Monday, I reckon.  It was promised for "later in the week, and if it is up already I have found some way to miss that one, also.  We'll get to it, though, when it is published.  What I propose to do here is highlight a few things that I think are important in these two posts, but you should read both of the original posts in their entirety (about 10 minutes each).  The insights I consider valuable may be different than those you take away.

All Access Part I

Most of the beginning of this installment has no real new information.  We don't get to the meat of the matter until Matt discusses how Kentucky prepares.  To me, this looks fairly pedestrian and typical of how most teams prepare, varying only slightly from what you'd expect, but it is some nice "inside baseball" stuff.

One of the most interesting insights, though, begins in this segment with Calipari's constant positive reinforcement of the team, affirming his belief in them and confidence in their ability.  Matt puts it this way:

That message of affirmation has been one that Calipari has reinforced all season. Unlike previous groups that had what Calipari calls an "internal swagger," this group has required much more care. He told me afterwards, "I spend a lot of time reminding these guys that I believe in them and that they are capable of being as good as anybody in the country. I normally haven't had to do that, but with this group I do."

We knew this because Calipari has said it before, but I think Matt was right to highlight this particular point.  This team clearly lacks the kind of self-conviction (that's another term for "internal swagger") that last year's team had in such abundance.  These players clearly don't believe that they are better than everyone else, which in my experience is a combination of self-doubt and rational thinking.  It fits right into the cerebral mold of Brandon Knight, for example, and into the laid-back style of Doron Lamb and Darius Miller

"Brash" is not a word you would apply to a single player on this entire team.  "Surly" is another thing they definitely are not.  Both were totally apropos to last year's team, and it's remarkable how different a team is without that type of demeanor on it.  Brashness and surliness are two things that every great team needs at least a dash of, particularly for close games.  This team, instead, is reticent, and it's a daily struggle for Calipari to reinforce their confidence.

Another interesting observation is that the professional scouts are always in attendance at practice.  I confess, this is news to me, but it really shouldn't be.  Still, that's quite an amazing thing, if you think about it.  The pros already know the strengths and weaknesses of these players on the practice floor as well as the game floor.  That must be intimidating to these guys, at least a little.

The fact that Calipari identified Chandler Parsons as the important cog in Florida's wheel should surprise nobody who reads this blog, and neither should Cal's frustration with Lamb or Eloy Vargas.  But I confess I was a bit surprised by how he reinforces Miller at the end of practices.  Interesting bit of psychology, that.

 

All-Access, Part II

This practice takes place closer to the Florida game.  The first real interesting thing in this one to me is the transition offense 3-point shooting drill.  Calipari complains after three missed open shots, but when one is finally made, it is all "Mr. Positive."  That's a transparent psychological reinforcement, and it continues throughout the practice.

Calipari is well aware that this team has no leader but him:

"You can’t treat this group like the last few I have had," Calipari says later. "They feed off of me and I have to tell them ‘We are going to win and I believe in you,' or else they will not play to their potential."

There is no question he is right about this.  This team does feed off him and needs that energy to be constantly there.  Calipari did not coach this year the way he did last year -- he is much more active, his movements huge and impossible to overlook.  He tries to capture their attention the whole time.

Then there is this:

Regardless of what Calipari tries, this is a reserved group and communication on the court remains less than optimum.

You've noticed this, haven't you?  especially when they get significantly behind, communication wanes to nothing with this group.  They clam up and live in their own little world, and while communication is important, what Calipari is really trying to do is prevent them from closing themselves off from each other, as they are wont to do.  The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that this team has been as good as it has been.

Remember back to the Florida game, then consider this:

Assistant coach John Robic works with the players on a particular inbound play that he says Florida is "certain to run." He tells Lamb to watch for Parsons cutting through the lane, as the play is designed for an open layup. Lamb shakes his head and says he understands, but the final time the play is run, he is once again a step slow on the rotation, leading to a wide open layup.

I remember Lamb blowing that play right there, and Parsons getting an and-1.  Calipari had to be driven to complete distraction by that.

"We never got a swagger with this group," Calipari said. "We actually execute better than last year’s team but we don’t have that instinct to go get a rebound and be tough to win the game. The other teams are playing out of desperation to beat us and we don’t have that aggression to give back to them."

How instructive is this, how completely descriptive of what we have seen on the floor.  We see players getting pushed around by tougher teams, and this is exactly why.  They are sharp, cerebral, precise, and lack anything like the toughness and self-certainty that defined last year's group.  They don't get too up, nor too down.  They simply lack the emotional and psychological edge to respond to a physical challenge.

 

Conclusion

There's a lot of other interesting stuff here, so read the whole thing.  For me, the most interesting thing is Calipari's clear understanding of the difficult psyche of this team, and how hard, almost desperately hard, he works on it every day.  I have no doubt his affirmations of confidence in them happens constantly.

But despite this flagrant weakness, this team is still remarkably talented and executes like a team of juniors.  When Calipari says that this an "execution team," that's what he means -- the better they execute, the bigger the lead they will ultimately wind up giving back when the opponent gets tough and desperate.

I had hoped this team would progress on the toughness and "swagger" front, but at this point, if it showed up, I'm sure it would be little more than an affectation.  We are what we are, and what we are not is ready to accept a physical or psychological challenge from a desperate and motivated team.

That's not what I'd hoped to find at this point.  Our weakness, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, is not our lack of size, or depth -- it is this team's self-doubt and lack of internal resiliency.  I suspected that, but these two articles more than confirmed it. 

We'll just have to hope Calipari can bring enough of it to the table for all of them.

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