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Kentucky Basketball: John Calipari's Flexibility In Style Is One Of His Greatest Strengths

Coach Cal is mostly known for his Dribble Drive Motion offense, but it's the fact that he isn't wedded to that style that makes him a great coach.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

John Clay has an interesting piece today hitting on a subject that I have been wanting to write about (but have been unable to do so). The topic is how John Calipari has become inclined to allow his players to dictate the style of play, rather than trying to force them into a particular offensive set — say, like his Dribble Drive Motion Offense.

Clay starts off thus:

John Calipari isn’t wedded to the dribble-drive offense. He isn’t wedded to the low-post offense or the pick-and-roll offense or the shoot-the-three-every-time-down-the-floor offense. There isn’t a John Calipari offense or a John Calipari way of playing basketball.

I think this is true. We saw it almost from Day 1, when he discovered that the 2009-10 team was more suited to a post-up type of game than the DDM, which would have featured DeMarcus Cousins hanging around on the weak side of the basket waiting for an offensive rebound or dump off while John Wall and Eric Bledsoe attacked the rim. In retrospect, it makes no sense to deny yourself the availability of Cousins in the post, with help from Patrick Patterson, who was another post-up threat.

So Calipari simply dropped running the DDM, for the most part, in favor of a more traditional offensive set that provided the best possible use of the talent he had. Innovation is a wonderful thing, and the DDM is a great innovation, but if you pigeonhole yourself or try to force more or less incompatible pieces into a certain set offense, a coach can quickly deny himself many of his best available options.

Other coaches might earn kudos for fitting players into their system. Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan comes to mind. Nothing wrong with that. Calipari should get credit for showing the flexibility to find a system best for his players.

This is a very good point — unlike many coaches (Bo Ryan is a great example, Jim Boeheim is another) Kentucky doesn’t recruit players to fit into a particular system. Rather, Calipari recruits the best available talent at every position (subject to their understanding and acceptance of what it means to play at Kentucky), then adjusts his offensive and defensive strategy to best show them off.

Last season, Calipari made what I consider to be an error in judgment, letting the NCAA’s changed method of calling contact dictate the style he would play. This produced what I labeled the Dribble Drive, Fling, and Hope — notable for the tendency of the guards to drive headlong into their defender trying so hard to draw the foul that their only option was to fling the ball at the basket and hope for an offensive rebound and put-back. To be sure, Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson are all fine offensive rebounders, but that’s just asking way too much of anyone.

The now-famous tweak, which was essentially a return to the fundamental principles of Vance Walberg’s awkwardly named "attack, attack, skip attack, attack" 4-out set offense, changed Kentucky's 2013-14 fortunes. The normal thinking in this offense is that priority #1 is to get to the rim for a layup. The problem execution-wise last season was that Calipari placed so much emphasis on getting the ball to the rim that the other options, such as a skip pass or offensive reset where another player attacks the rim immediately after the first, were simply discarded. The offense was reduced to straight-line dribble-drives from the top or from the wing, with the only true option being a contested layup attempt.

Calipari’s tweak was to insist on an pass in the early offense in what is known as the "drag zone," the area in which the player has to make a decision whether to press the rim attack or "option" to a pass of some kind. This small adjustment did one thing very well — forced the defense, which didn’t have to move in the DDFH arrangement, to move. Kentucky was able to create mismatches, and get clean looks at the rim from both inside and out, which they began to make.

This season, Calipari will once again have to figure out how to play his guys, and he will. He’ll run some DDM, he’ll run some pick and roll, he’ll run some post up and even hopefully some high-low (which UK seems spectacularly suited to this season). From the results, he’ll hopefully find an offensive attack that will take maximum advantage of Kentucky’s enormous size and athletic talent.

We’ll get a preview of some of that starting this weekend with Big Blue Bahamas, but don’t expect a lot. I have no doubt there will be a bunch of experimentation going on in these games, and some of it will produce ugly results. But after it’s all over, Coach Cal should have some idea what is going to work with this team, and what isn’t.

The last point I’ll make is one that’s intuitively obvious now to the Big Blue Nation, but not so much to the rest of the world. John Calipari is not just a recruiter who gets the best players and then rolls the ball out. He works very hard every year to utilize his personnel in such a way as to give Kentucky the best chance to win. Sometimes, it takes him, and the players, a while to get on the same page, but they get there eventually.

This season, Kentucky will have that once-every-four-years advantage that allows them to prepare for the season early against quality competition. Combined with Calipari’s determination to play the way that’s best for his players and his return to health after a debilitating arthritic hip last season, the rest of the basketball world knows deep in their heart of hearts that they are in trouble this season when Kentucky comes to town.