Non-negotiables. I love that term for all kinds of reasons. It implies boundaries that my not be crossed without consequences, thinking that must be embraced in order to perform satisfactorily — all kinds of wonderful things. When something is non-negotiable, it is usually a) indispensable to success, or b) a fundamental tenet of one side’s beliefs.
According to John Clay, John Calipari has suggested there will be several "non-negotiables" when it comes to basketball next year, and the depth of the 2014-15 Wildcats allows him to place several things on the non-negotiable list that would perhaps not have been last season, and almost certainly weren't in 2013. Clay lists several of them in his piece, and there is still more at CoachCal.com and in an article by Mike DeCourcy over at The Sporting News.
"A preponderance of pouting." This seems a little too fungible to be considered a non-negotiable to me, and what exactly is a "preponderance?" Perhaps he’ll be using the Justice Potter Stewart definition of obscenity; the "I know it when I see it" standard. The Harrison twins, Julius Randle, and James Young were all called out at some point last season for pouting, usually described as "hanging their heads." It was especially noticeable when one or both of the Harrisons were having a bad night, but Randle was also occasionally easy to single out.
I suppose it’s impossible to have a "zero-tolerance" policy for pouting — after all, zero-tolerance policies rarely work out well, and you know a young player is going to hang his head a bit early in his career. The thing is, though, pouting and negativity about one’s play can be contagious, and that’s why Calipari hates it. When one player does it, you often see others following suit.
Equally bad is the toll it takes on self-esteem and focus. If you are focused on feeling negative about your game, how can you possibly be focused on helping your teammates win? You can’t really, because it’s now all about you and your poor play. It’s easy to see why this is #1 on the list.
A lack of hustling. This one seems easily definable, at least as far as Calipari is concerned. It will take the kids a while to get their head around the level of hustle he expects, the "go as hard as you can until you’re fatigued, then take yourself out" kind of hustle. This season that one will be easy to enforce, and it’s been somewhat problematic most seasons.
Hustle is one of those things that’s easy to do when your playing well, and hard to do when you’re not. When you’re not playing your best, you take plays off, look for shortcuts, and try to conserve energy. In short, you don’t hustle. When great players hustle, they make great plays, and when they don’t, they become average really, really fast.
Hustling is also getting back on defense. There was some talk of a lack of athleticism hurting Kentucky’s transition defense last season, but I personally believe that was more a lack of hustle than anything else. The defense usually has an advantage in transition, and what we lacked was people sprinting back to stop the ball and get into defensive position. What we did see a lot of was halfhearted backpedaling.
Not diving after loose balls. This one is a learned skill. Getting on the floor is just something you do, like taking a charge, getting back on defense when you’re tired, or working your butt off to block out while rebounding. There’s no magic to it, no real talent required — just dedication and a desire to help your team win without worrying about a raspberry or two. You see young kids do that all the time, but older guys value their skin too much to leave it on the floor — that is, unless they are taught to do it with the carrot and stick of playing time versus pine.
I’d like to see enthusiasm as a "non-negotiable" also. Nothing will sap a team’s determination faster than an apathetic or disinterested bench. If you can’t get up there and encourage your teammates, how can you possibly be their keeper? Again, this is a learned skill. Most of us are naturally enthusiastic about our passion, but sometimes we get so caught up in it we don’t know how to show it. Or, in the worst case, we pout and focus inward rather than outward.
I think sharing the basketball should be non-negotiable. Last season’s team shared it pretty well, but I don’t want to see a reversion. Share the ball, share the wealth, share the glory, be a team. Last year’s team took all season to figure out who they were, and some of that was because of an inward focus that they struggled all year to overcome.
Finally, I want Calipari to coach the team without all the drama of last year. That’s non-negotiable for me. The running out onto the floor, the crazy faces — Coach Cal has never needed that sort of over-the-top Kardashian-like nonsense to get people’s attention before. Lose that, and go back to the man that guided the 2012 team to the promised land.
When you have a team as stacked as this one, you have to figure out who wants it the most and who will try the hardest. Honestly, there is just not that much difference in talent between the top ten or so in this group, so you can afford to do this. Most coaches can’t.
This is a luxury that Calipari has over every other team in college basketball this season. The problem is, you still have to keep the rest of them engaged, and improving. That’s going to be an even bigger challenge than finding the five guys who give you the most at their positions.
I can’t wait to see how it shakes out.