John Calipari had a lot to say about last night's game. A lot. Some of it is the usual coachspeak, but most of it was quite pithy and useful. That's one thing Calipari does not seem to mind doing -- letting everybody know where he thought the team succeeded and where it failed. Here is what I am hearing from him:
- Toughness and hustle. Coach Cal basically called out his whole team on these two things, and they go hand in hand. Toughness and hustle are two of the most fundamental things to great basketball teams. You can have all the talent in the world, and play harder than anybody, but still fail if you don't have those two things.
Last night, the 'Cats were not tough. They let an NAIA team abuse them on the offensive glass. Why? Because nobody came in with the DeMarcus Cousins attitude that he is tougher than anybody. Basketball is one of those games where the old addage, "It's not about the size of the dog in the fight, it's about the size of the fight in the dog" really says it all. Pikeville had a much bigger fight in them than Kentucky did, and although they had far less skill, the fight saw them through to a competitive game.
- Hustle points. Cal claims that this is one of his lowest hustle points games ever, and I can see that. Most of the hustle happened in the second half. We saw guys like Liggins and Knight going after balls on the ground. How many times, though, did Lamb get down there? Miller? Jones? Not many.
This is a young team, and it has to really develop an understanding of what it takes to win at this level. You can't just go futilely throwing your body around, you have to start with a determination that no matter how good the other guy is, you are tougher and more physical than he is. Cousins had 270# and almost 7 feet to go with a scowl that sent that message. Terrance Jones has a boyish face, gangly arms and looks about as ferocious as Winnie the Pooh, and he couldn't intimidate Tinker Bell with his current attitude. That has to change.
- Missing open shots. This is what Calipari said about that:
"We've been working on 3-point shooting, too. We're one-for-11 from the three. Of the 11, I don't think anybody was guarded. So you're talking about a horse shot that we were one-for-11 for. When I watch the tape, I'll make sure of that. I bet you nine of them were wide open."He's absolutely right. The biggest reason UK missed the open shots is because they played tentatively instead of aggressively, and watched the basketball all the way to the rim. That's not how you play in college.
In college basketball, you have to be the aggressor at all times. Every shot has to be important when you let it go, and forgotten after it leaves your hand. We saw too many poses and not enough charging after the offensive rebound. When you shoot a shot, even if it feels pure, you have to go straight for the offensive glass, or if you're a guard, get back in defensive position in case of a long rebound or a quick outlet. UK did neither well last night as the run-outs and poor OR% demonstrated.
What's all that got to do with shooting? You can't have one without the other. You have to bring the whole package. Focus on the rim, release the ball, and go get the rebound or in defensive position. Don't watch the ball fly sweetly through the air and pose for the cameras, it's gone and sometimes the sweetest-feeling shots clang off like bricks. When you start focusing on the game instead of following the ball around, your shots will fall.
- Communication: Kentucky didn't have any.
Twice, Darius Miller failed to call out a pick and Brandon Knight went slamming into a bigger guy. Want to lose your star point guard for a game or two to a bruised knee, rib, or concussion? That's the way to do it.
This is perhaps the hardest thing that freshmen and even juniors have to learn -- how to talk to each other, how to communicate when they get beat, or when there is a pick, or when they see a man get lose for an open shot. High school players are simply not used to communicating that way, and returning veterans need to relearn it often. Coach Cal explained why this is important:
"This is a team sport. It's five guys becoming a fist. Five guys together. One heartbeat. We all know what we're doing. We're all responsible to each other. That takes time. This group, we're going to have to learn it because we go have a home game against an NCAA tournament team, go on the road and play four games. So we're going to have to, in a hurry, get some guys up to speed."I like that simile. Five guys becoming a "fist." Not a hand, but a fist to smite the foe. That's how you become a band of brothers, becoming a fist. So tight there is no separation between you and your teammate, between his purpose and yours, between your heartbeat and his. That's what a winning team looks like -- a fist. One of the most apt metaphors I have ever heard.
- Physicality: Similar to toughness, but it is more a willingness to take and give contact. Calipari intimated that physicality, along with toughness, shows up in loose balls -- his teams get them, they don't get pushed out of the way. These young Wildcats got pushed around by a smaller, yet more physical team yesterday.
All this, all of it, has mostly to do with maturity and learning what it takes to win a college basketball game at the Division I level. These things, taken together, are usually found in large measure on teams laden with juniors and seniors. On teams full of freshmen, they are usually not found, and this Kentucky team is no exception. The maturity, the toughness, the hustle, the physicality, the communications -- all these things are unnecessary in the AAU world, but indispensable in Division I college basketball. Soft teams do not win championships. Teams that don't hustle fail early. Teams that lack toughness go home in March. Teams that don't communicate do not win SEC championships.
If it seems like I'm harsh on the young lads in this post, I am not. I am merely looking at what the coach said, comparing it to what I saw, and accepting the validity of his remarks in the context in which he offered them. None of this should be a surprise to Wildcat fans, and all of it will motivate these young players as much as anything can. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither are championship basketball teams. The first game always shows you how bad you are.
Enes Kanter, should he become eligible, will bring a measure of toughness and physicality to this team. Unlike Jones, he did not start out as a guard and move into the middle -- he's always been a big guy, and he's used to playing with guys as big and strong as he is, and far more physical than anyone these young Wildcats have faced so far. Some of that will rub off on the Kentucky players, when and if Enes is freed.
But for now, these young men are going to have to learn all these things under the ministrations of a meaner Coach Cal. It could be a tough couple of weeks.