The Kentucky Wildcats have faced a number of tough opponents and challenging venues this season, but none will prove to be as difficult as what they'll face Saturday night.
The Kansas Jayhawks are looking to make a statement after losing three of their last five games, not to mention last year's 72-40 shellacking at the hands of UK. John Calipari knows his young Cats are facing a big challenge, but he's excited to see how they handle it while also getting to coach in the arena where he got his coaching start under Larry Brown.
Here is a recap of what Cal had to say during Friday's meeting with the media.
On playing in Allen Fieldhouse
"Well, they have lost three games now at home - in the last like 10 years. You have really good players. You have really good fans that push you over the top many times. You have a team that's comfortable in that environment. I think that's both schools. To win those kinds of games as an opponent you've got to be careful of runs and 3s.
"A team like that can score a bunch in 12, 15 seconds, and that's what you've got to guard against. Really in a game like this you're just trying to give yourself a chance to win the game. You're not trying to go and blow anybody out because it's just unusual."
On his best memory of his time at Kansas
"Meeting my wife. You knew I was going to say that. Met my wife there. I had nothing. I had no aspirations for anything other than to learn basketball. Felt so blessed that I had an opportunity to start on that campus. The guy who invented the game was their first coach. (Then) Phog Allen, who coached Adolph Rupp, who was, you know. Wilt (Chamberlain). I mean, you can go on and on, but I was just blessed to have that chance.
"Made no money. When they offered me the position, Coach (Ted) Owens said, ‘I'd like you to stay in the volunteer assistant slot.' I said, ‘Really? How much does that guy make?' And then Coach (Larry) Brown asked me to stay. I was blessed to be able to stay with him for two years and I look back fondly. I had nothing except basketball. I think I had a Plymouth Arrow at that time. Do they still make Plymouth Arrows?
"I don't think they do. But no worries. I didn't haveâI stayed with Randolph Carroll, who was a part-time assistant. He let me stay with him. It was a great time for me because, can you imagine being 23, 22 and your first opportunity to be around the game is in a program like Kansas? I just felt every day I woke up, I was like, ‘I can't believe this.' And I had the same feeling when I got this job. And John Robic looked out and saw Kentucky across that wall out there and it was glitter and I'm like, ‘Can you imagine that we're here at Kentucky?'
"It's the same thing. Kansas is exactly the same kind of program."
On last season's UK vs Kansas game influencing this game
"I mean, look, I think Bill (Self) is not going to make anything personal because he knows if he does that your team can't win the game when it becomes a personal thing. But he will remind them that a different Kentucky team got them pretty good last year. I'm not worried about last year's game; that's totally different. We're going into a hostile environment.
"I'm going to tell you, our building, I can remember when we played North Carolina here and we won on the last play, and I'll tell you it was so loud. Allen Fieldhouse is louder. Like, much louder. Acoustically it's built like that (gestures to evoke an arched roof) so the sound hits it and it comes right back at you.
"And it literally moves you. If you're standing and they really get loud, it will move you. I was there. I coached there and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can feel it.' It's like you're at a concert and you're near the bass. Boom! Boom! You feel it. I mean that's how it is there. It'll be interesting for these guys, especially these young guys, to walk in and to feel it. I love the tradition of it. I'll go through (the arena).
"I've got to take a picture of Bob Marcum - the former (UMass) AD - is one of my dear friends and his portrait is on the wall somewhere. I'll take a picture of it and send it out when we get there tonight. Our people need to go out to look at it and see how they have it set up because it's really neat."
On Dominique Hawkins' status
"He practiced yesterday. I don't know. I'll see today. He's not 100 percent, but you know, it would be a nice game to walk into. Be out a month and walk into this game. ‘Go ahead, get in there. You can do it!'"
On what Hawkins brings that the team lacks without him
"Just a toughness, a steadiness. You know, a team player who will play within himself. Will defend and dive on the floor. He's done it before. We've seen him in NCAA Tournaments do it, so we know what he is. And I think this team is really comfortable (with him). Like, when I split the teams up and he couldn't quite go, Tyler (Ulis) said. ‘He was the X-factor. That's why my team won. When he got hurt and we had to play somebody else, my team couldn't win.'
"And that's who he is. He's a winner. He's a great kid. It's like all of them. You want guys to go out, learn about themselves, and then go out and really give their best effort. Learn who they are. Like, we got guys trying to figure out, ‘How do I get myself going?'
"I said, ‘You've got to ask yourself questions. Sometimes it's not how do I get myself going. It becomes another question of what's stopping me from doing this? Is something holding me back?' And they gotta do that. The best players I've coached were able to self-evaluate and then change. The best players I've coached. The others get delusional. They want to blame everybody. It's always something else. ‘I'm fine!' ‘No, you're not. That's your problem. You're not fine.'
"The best self-evaluate, and that's what I'm trying to teach these guys. You gotta figure it out from within and then we're here to help you. No one's trying to hurt you. We're throwing life preservers, but you've gotta swim. You've gotta swim. I can't swim for you."
On playing a big non-conference game during SEC play
"Well, I wasn't for any of this, whether it be the matchups or playing them in midseason. None of that. It's here, so we play the game. When I was at UMass, I always, later in the year, played a game like this. Usually it would be in February to get out of the league so that we could get ready for our run in the NCAA Tournament. We played Louisville, I think, twice late, like in the end of February.
"Everybody said, ‘Why are you doing this?' I said, ‘We have to get out of our league and get against somebody that can get us ready and juiced.' This is a different deal. This is like a March. Going out there and playing this kind of team and they fight. Their guards fight. Their bigs fight. They run great stuff. They really do run great stuff.
"So it isn't like you're just playing. ‘Man oh man, I'm playing great defense.' You've gotta play some of their things. Different ways they play. They put you in a lot of positions. I'm anxious to just see how we respond."
On how many games he's seen in Phog Allen since he left as a coach
"In that building? I don't think I've seen any. I've only been back there a couple of times. My wife is coming with us. She usually doesn't travel unless it's the NCAA Tournament. So, she's going back. Her parents are going to meet her. She grew up two-and-a-half hours from there. She'll probably go back with her parents after the game. I've been back a couple of times. Let me just tell you about the campus.
"The campus, every stone - unless it's changed - every stone on every building is from the same quarry. Think about that. Every stone on every building is from the same quarry. I mean, it is a unique place. It's special. That state takes great pride in their school. And they take pride in that basketball program and what's gone on there. What we want to talk about is the home record. How about he (Bill Self) has won more league championships than losses at home?
"I mean, what are you talking about? It's Kentucky and Kansas. Like you said, it's going to be a hyped game. We're finally starting to do some stuff. We're finally starting to become a team that I'm like, ‘OK, that looks like somebody I coach.' But, this will be one that, ‘Alright, you got hit in the mouth. Now how are you doing? Are you going to foul yourself out? Don't you foul yourself out. You gotta play.' I mean this will be a war."
On his team becoming the aggressor
"We're beginning to have a swagger because we're guarding. But, we need Alex (Poythress) to keep taking strides. Like, keep getting better. Not be consistent; get better. Because if he really gives us something, it gives us that one piece that makes itâbut I like what I'm seeing. I like how we're playing offensively. It's going to be harder this game because they get after it. They switch. They do stuff. They're man-to-man. They run gaps. They take chances. They get up in you. It'll be a challenge again for the young guys."
On Kansas using a three-guard lineup like UK
"Yeah, they do. Well, they do. Yeah. Some. I think (Perry) Ellis, though they stick him-when they really need something, he's next to that rim or he catches it and drives it next to the rim. Or they have a package for him to get him balls in that post. He's gotten better every year. He really has."
On seeing teams crumble at Allen Fieldhouse
"Oh yeah. I saw when we were coaching there. Like, you know, until you just, you know. You have the game and all of a sudden they make a play, another play, you miss a play, and all of a sudden, literally, you're like feeling this sound come at you. This is one of those things, it's like people coming to Rupp, where they love coming to come to play in Rupp because they can say, ‘I played in Rupp.'
"So going to Allen Fieldhouse, these guys will experience something they will never experience in their life in that building. There is no pro arena like that. There's no other arena we're going to walk into that's going to be that bad. We walk into great arenas, but not (like that). I'm just telling you, I was in there. I think the building was built in the 50s. Now let me say this to you, when I was in there in the 80s, you could eat off the floors.
"Now that means it was 30 years old. Literally, they had people that just mopped. Like, ‘Where were you?' ‘I gotta make sure there's not one little thing on this floor.' And that's the whole (place). It's like a shrine. It's great."
On Derek Willis improving in terms of rebounding
"I think it's his girlfriend. I think she's really doing it for him. (Laughter). Somebody saidâI don't care who helps him; just play better. And he's the greatest kid. I think he got to where, ‘I'm tired of sitting.' And I've said this before - you've all heard me - at Kentucky you only need one really good year. You don't have to worry about how you played as a freshman or sophomore.
"You need one really good year. And right now he got an opportunity because some guys backed up. If those guys had stepped up and kept playing, maybe he doesn't get that. But we went to Auburn, (and) when I walked in that locker room I said, ‘Do we need to make changes?'
"Dudes were yelling, ‘Yes!' Well, he was one of the changes. And so what you have isâhe had a bad practice a couple of days ago. I said, ‘Are you going back? Are you?' ‘I promise I'm not. I was awful today. I'll be fine.' Yesterday he was pretty good. I mean, I think he knows there's two feelings: that feeling of ecstasy and that other one that you don't feel like getting out from under the covers.
"Like, you got them up over your head. You don't want to see anybody. You don't want to move. And then there's that feeling of ecstasy where your chest is out, you're bouncing around, you want to see people. ‘Hey!' Which one do you want? I can tell you how get this one. You don't give your best effort. You don't prepare. You don't work. You expect something to be given to you.
"No one gives you anything. The other one is you build your own self-esteem, your own self-worth. You had demonstrated performance on the court, which he now has. You work so hard, you prepare so hard that you expect to play well. That's who he's been. He's been unbelievable in practice. Our best rebound. Think about that."