In the Vietnam War, the United States took the approach of winning over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Treat them well, help them defend their culture, and try and preserve their dignity, and get them to help win a war. That didn't work so well. But that didn't sway John Calipari. He has taken a similar approach and like everything else he touches, molded it to his uses.
Calipari has had to take one player at a time, break them down, build them up, and get them back up to speed and working inside his game plan. He tried doing it all at once, he tried it multiple times, and it just didn't work. Pre-season practices, in-game situations, and beating up on lesser opponents in the early part of the season did not do it. So what does Cal do? He takes a two-week period during Christmas break and installs a mini-camp atmosphere. That did not get the results he needed.
So he started taking them aside one by one. Fixing the glitches, clearing out the cobwebs in their minds, and correcting bad behaviors in a man-to-man atmosphere. And, Eureka! We have success. Not a complete turnaround, mind you, but more good stretches than bad stretches. Runs of more good shots than bad ones. Players started one by one "buying in" and learning to play their roles.
Kyle Wiltjer was first to see the light, after taking a beating from opponents and fans alike. He has started not just producing for this team, but leading them. Alex Poythress has begun the process as well. From better footwork to longer runs of better play, to game changing shots and rebounds, and most recently, an attitude of pushing harder. Thundering dunks, smooth 3-point shots, and aggressive rebounding are now all sights you can see from Alex at any time.
Nerlens Noel, while never really needing to change his game, has upped the level. He has started making it his mission in life to punish players who come into the paint, and allow his teammates to pick up the slack. And now, our resident shoot-first-shoot next-shoot later Archie Goodwin is passing the ball, making free throws, and driving the lane and getting the foul calls that have eluded him to this point, or were charges against him early on.
Ryan Harrow, while still not the prototypical point guard of the Calipari ideal, has started making more success stories than failures. The rest of the team has learned to provide the valuable minutes needed when the chips are down.
Willie Cauley-Stein should return from surgery to the floor on Saturday. He will be the next man to be able to show what he has learned over the last few games. Sitting the bench and watching his teammates struggle through it has got to have some effect on his game.
They are not out of the woods, mind you. One complete game does not a team make. They have a very tough two weeks ahead of them, and then the schedule gets hard. Team defense, while vastly improved against Ole Miss, will have to continue to steadily improve game by game through the end of the season to complete this transformation.
It probably won't be easy, either. They will probably fight Calipari every step of the way, much like they have done all year so far. They will get a little boost from their last performance, and then they will have to knuckle down and go harder in the next game. There can be no letting up. They have already lost more games than anyone had hoped they would. First step is corralling that NCAA Tourney bid. Then we start looking to take the SEC crown. From there it's no taking the foot off the gas until April.
Don't think it's going to happen? Well, don't worry. Cal just hasn't gotten to you yet.