"Yeah, Maryland and Duke to start (the season). We could be 0-2. I was with the guys at Wheeler's (Pharmacy), and I said 'we're rebuilding, how are you guys going to be (with that)?' ... One guy says, 'We're with you coach. Win or tie, we're right there with you.' Then I said, 'well, what if we really start out slow? Are you still going to love me?' They said, 'oh man, come on. We're going to love you. We'll miss you, but we're still going to love you.'"
John Calipari talking about fan expectations at UK's basketball media day.
Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans are famous -- or is it infamous -- for expecting greatness from its round-ball team on a yearly basis, and with this year's incredibly talented squad receiving a preseason top five ranking, 'Cat fan expectations are once again sky-rocketing.
And it's that Final Four-or-bust mentality which exists among a high percentage of the Big Blue fan base that has served Kentucky fans well over the last 60 years or so. By demanding greatness out of its team, the supporters of UK basketball have ensured Kentucky has all the right pieces in place to be successful (read: a coach able to get the best players to Lexington, and then win with those players), or risk the wrath of the BBN.
At times, though, one of the unintended consequences of demanding excellence on a yearly basis are unrealistic expectations placed on some UK teams. Historically, some Kentucky squads, while sometimes successful in the SEC, were not national title players (for various reasons), which oftentimes led to unfounded (and sometimes "founded") gloom and doom in the Commonwealth. The din created by restless UK fans was often pointed to as a negative of the Wildcats' passionate fan base, a case of over-caring about one's team.
Then, along came Cal, who taught UK fans, regardless of what "national" writers think and write, it's okay for Kentucky basketball fans to expect the 'Cats to ooze excellence on a yearly basis. Instead of hiding from it, Cal has embraced the great expectations of his fan base, and that is one of the reason's his three-year stint in the Bluegrass has been so overwhelmingly successful: a 102-14 overall record (.897 winning percentage), two Final Four appearances and one national title (I realize everyone reading this knows the numbers, but I do love to type them).
Embracing expectations is not all he has brought to the table, though, for Calipari has a patent pending on underselling and over-delivering the goods, but this year his concerns about his team's inexperience seem to be legitimate: A lack of experience in UK's big men being the most obvious shortcoming (6-foot-10 Nerlens Noel, 7-foot-0 Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-foot-7 Alex Poythress are all frosh), along with the mega-ton of Wildcat talent that scattered to various NBA cities this summer.
Perhaps partially mitigating that circumstance, though, is the fact that for the first time in six seasons, Cal will have a non-freshman running the point.
The Harrow Factor
In NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, Calipari has a player who performed quite well in the ACC in his rookie year (9.3 points, 3.3 assists per game), and then sat out a transfer year at UK. Harrow, unlike his blue-blooded predecessors (John Wall, Brandon Knight, and Marquis Teague), should know before the season even begins what it is his head coach expects out of him as he leads the 'Cats as UK's floor general.
"I just need to do whatever he expects of me," Harrow succintly said about Coach Cal at UK's media day. When to take the ball to the rim, when to drive and dish, when to reset. All of these decisions, key decisions to being a top notch point in Cal's ever-changing system, should already be ingrained in Harrow's head, which should lead to fewer Wildcat turnovers and more offensive efficiency. Something that should partially alleviate, for Harrow's star-studded teammates, the sometimes rocky transition from high school ball to the big blue stage.
Although early season hiccups are simply unavoidable when a team as young as UK's takes the floor, Harrow's experience and knowledge gained in his three years at the collegiate level will greatly benefit the 2012-2013 'Cats, as they march toward yet another opportunity to take a bite out of UCLA's national championship edge.
The Calipari Factor
"I have more knowledge, been through more experiences. There's nothing a kid is going to do or say that I haven't seen and I don't respond to it better. In a game you have a better feel for all situations because there have probably been times when you're up nine with two minutes to go and lose. And you learn from players. Every player I've coached here you learn different things from. There's not much I haven't seen in 20-something years."
Calipari talking at UK's media day about how he thinks he's a better coach than he used to be.
What Calipari fails to expound on with this quote is what might be his most impressive trait as a coach --Cal's uncommon ability to mold super young, super-star talent into a unit composed of players willing, sometimes eager, to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.
It's one thing for a coach to talk a good game about melding players into a team, something many, many coaches do but never demonstrate. It's another thing altogether to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt; this is how you do it and this is the result. And that's what Calipari has done.
If a better salesman than Calipari exists on the planet, I certainly do not know who he/she might be. Although Cal relates very clearly with his words that it is experience that has enabled him to become a better coach, it's his ability to persuade, to sell, that stands out. First, it's the elite high school recruits he brings to campus with his powerful pitch -- players recruited for not only their ability, but also their attitude -- which starts the ball rolling. Then, Cal convinces his No. 1 rated class that winning is what's best for their individual dreams, therefore maximizing the talent at hand. That is what sets Calipari apart from his major DI coaching brethren.
Of course, having former Memphis and UK players, many of whom are now cashing NBA paychecks, use words like "trust" and "honesty" when talking about Calipari, only serves to ripen the interest today's top high school players have for Kentucky. For it's those top high school performers who have also been witness as the 'Cats have taken over the college basketball scene.
But Cal isn't interested in telling the top high school players what they want to hear. Instead he regales them with challenges and the truth.
"Well, tell them the truth. Not embellishing. I mean, we undersell, over-deliver. I'm not going to BS you. This is how it is. If you don't want this, then you don't come here. I'm not the only coach that can help you prepare for your dreams. This is what we do and how we do it.
"'Last year how did you get guys to play this way?' (The answer is) They trusted that it was about them. So they shared their sacrifice, they shared sacrifice."
Calipari on how he communicates with today's athletes.
And that, Kentucky fan, is how Cal gets it done, and why this year's talented Wildcat squad will once again "overdeliver."
So yeah, although the 'Cats are painfully young, bereft of returning starters, the guys at Wheeler's Pharmacy have every reason to expect great things from the 2012-2013 Wildcats. For unless Calipari's mad, mad (accidental) experiment goes haywire, the 2013 Wildcats will most likely end up being worthy of their lofty preseason ranking and ubiquitous expectations. The talent and coaching are in place ... tick, tock, goes the Big Blue clock.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!