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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: How Calipari Convinces Stars to Become Role Players

Four white shirts in this view illustrates why the Kentucky Wildcats dominated the Louisville Cardinals on the glass Saturday -- team rebounding.
Four white shirts in this view illustrates why the Kentucky Wildcats dominated the Louisville Cardinals on the glass Saturday -- team rebounding.

Much has been made, and deservedly so, of John Calipari's ability to get players who would be the focus of nearly every other team in college basketball to accept what is essentially a role-player's job at Kentucky. Today, we get some insight into how that process works.

Jerry Tipton has this article today describing Calipari's reaction to recent efforts by Kentucky:

As Calipari explained to reporters Monday, UK coaches went over the plan for the first offensive possession of the U of L game 22 times. That included practice on Friday, the shootaround before Saturday's game, on the greaseboard in the locker room prior to taking the court and then in the huddle after the introduction of lineups.

Then a player — Calipari didn't reveal who — failed to follow instructions. Even though UK scored on its first possession (Darius Miller hit a three-pointer), the coach made an issue of the breakdown.

The article goes on to explain Calipari's constant emphasis on forcing the players to stop thinking about showing off for the NBA scouts, and worrying about their place at the next level. Instead, he constantly reinforces the idea that players don't need to be stars in order to reach the the dream of playing for the NBA.

One of the things that Coach Cal is always trying to emphasize is that a team of superstars is not a team. Everyone must not only play their role, but embrace that role, and embracing it is critical to success. If a player is determined to play for his future NBA lottery positions, it is a sure bet he isn't worried enough about what happens to the team. Calipari is trying to teach these guys that if everyone does what they are supposed to do, the NBA will notice them not just for their individual ability, but for their coachability, and for their willingness to suppress the urge to stand out on the stat sheet and play for each other.

This has got to be a tough thing to do. All these kids that Calipari coaches came from circumstances where they were The Man, and they were encouraged to be The Man for the good of the team. Very few of Kentucky's players came from teams with multiple great players on them, and the AAU circuit does nothing to reinforce the team concept. To the contrary, players know that AAU is where they must stand out in order to make an impression on college coaches, and they naturally carry that viewpoint over to college.

Calipari has ridden Josh Harrellson's success like Secretariat trying to ram home his "team first" and "teammates first" idea to his young charges:

The exchanged continued Calipari facetiously texting Harrellson, "Looks like I held you back."To which, Harrellson replied, "Coach, you did fine. We had a terrific shooting team. I didn't need to shoot jumpers."


"Did it work out for him?" Calipari said. It was a rhetorical question. "You don't have to worry about yourself. Do what you're supposed to be. You'll be presented in a way (NBA) people like you."

That "me first" worldview is anathema to Calipari, and he must spend half his time reinforcing the idea among these kids that you cannot win at the big time basketball level by playing as individuals trying to show off for the NBA. It's been drilled into them since they first picked up a basketball and showed promise that standing out is the way to get noticed, and trying to undo a lifetime of reinforced behavior in just a few short months seems almost impossible, yet Calipari manages to do it to a greater degree than any other coach in college basketball.

But it seems that tendency to be a star is always simmering just beneath the surface. It must be a full-time job constantly reinforcing the idea that "me first" is not a recipe for success, but a roadmap to failure at the championship level. I'm sure it comes easily enough for some players, but there are clearly others who require constant reinforcement.

And it doesn't matter who they are. You will never see a team of selfless whirlwinds like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, such players are as rare as hen's teeth. Instead, you are lucky to get one of him and four other guys who have to constantly be reminded that there was basketball on this earth before they were born.