As the SEC Tournament rolls on, the Kentucky Wildcats are awaiting their opening game on Friday night.
In the meantime, John Calipari met with the media Thursday to discuss the latest happenings around Kentucky basketball heading into postseason play. He also talked about how all of the injuries UK has endured this year have actually helped put the Cats in a better position to make a run now in their conference tournament, as well as the NCAA Tournament.
Cal also updated the progress of Skal Labissiere, health of Derek Willis and Isaiah Briscoe's emergence among many other topics. Here's a recap of everything he had to say:
On how practice has been
"It's gone good, the guys have been good. Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices were sharp. Alabama and Mississippi are both really good teams, but the hard thing about the first game becomes that they've played and they've got momentum and you're walking in not knowing and you've had to lay around all day.
"The hardest game is the first game. After that, you could still lose, but the hardest game is playing that first one when they've already played a game."
On if Kentucky can improve its seed in SEC Tourney
"That I don't know. Obviously, that's the committee. But what I always come back to is when they miss-seed, you don't hurt the team that you miss-seed, you hurt Ohio State, North Carolina. You hurt Wichita State, you kill ‘em. That's who gets hurt.
"I don't know what our seed is. I have no idea what they're thinking. I've heard 3, 4, 5. This is one of those years where I would normally say, ‘Seed matters.' Because the numbers show you that the higher you're seeded, the better your chances are of winning.
"This may be one of those year that is crazy. You could have an 8 or 9 seed in the Final Four, maybe a couple. You could have an 11."
On if anything about this team keeps him up at night
"Nothing keeps me up at night. I'm feeling comfortable about my team. I like that they're being empowered. My message will be real simple for them. The message being, one, be the best version of you. Know what that looks like. We know it. We've defined it. We've helped you.
"The second thing is be about your team. Now is the time to totally lose yourself because being your best version should come easily now. It should be habit. That's the message for these guys and let's go play. This is for us to tighten up anything, to play with great intensity, to improve our seed or solidify our seed if possible. This is what this is about."
On how Skal Labissiere has been since UK's last game
He was a little bit light either Tuesday or Wednesday and I'm absolutely drilled him. I'm like, ‘You're not doing that. You will not start. If you think you're reverting back, your butt will be right on that bench.' And where he would let go of the rope, he grabs onto it again. He's trying.
On if he changed Skal's position on the floor to help him
"Well, we did it early on when we saw that he's probably better as a pick and pop guy, even though he can score in the post. He's just not physical enough and they really get after him and he turns it over, so we're just telling him if you catch the ball shoot it.
"And then you try to remind them, there's three things that happen if you shoot the ball. Three things, for all you basketball Bennies. The ball goes in, the ball doesn't go in and we rebound it - that's good - and then the ball doesn't go in and they rebound it.
"Two out of three are good for us, so shoot the ball! Just shoot it! Don't try to - don't. Just shoot the ball. We got a couple guys like that that want to try and make basketball plays that end up being turnovers, that end up being layups down the other end."
On finally having a healthy team
"We know our season is not ending this weekend one way or another. He just has to build on what he's doing. He's not a machine. He's not a computer. He can have a bad game and be fine. But what we have for the first time and no one has really talked about it, is that I've got a full team.
"Now you've got Dom healthy, you've got Derek healthy, you've got Alex healthy. We haven't had that all year. So we're coming together at the right time and kids are playing confidently. What happens is, my guess is that whoever we play will come out of the gate feeling the momentum of the last game.
"If you're confident, that won't affect you. You'll know that you should expect it. That's what this team is building to. They're empowered. All of the stuff they're doing, they're doing on their own. We don't really run plays, we run actions.
"They're playing with confidence."
On when he could say he was happy with his team
"Well, you're building that. I've always liked my team. I'm never satisfied. I'm still not satisfied, but I'm happy with the direction. I'm happy that they've finally accepted confidence is from within. It's not exterior. It's not what someone says to you.
"It's not how they say it. 'C'mon!' 'Oh my gosh.' No, that is not confidence. It's how hard you work, in your own mind, do you believe you deserve to play well and then going on the court and doing it to build your own confidence. It's like self-esteem. Self-confidence.
"I think we got away from that and started looking for alibis for why I'm not playing well, why I'm not confident, and we've kind of come back to this is what it is and guys are taking responsibility for their own confidence. And - you ready - competence, which kind of sounds really close, doesn't it?
"Competence and confidence. It's kind of both. You can't make a free throw, it's kind of hard to be confident."
On if he needs to rest Tyler Ulis if UK makes deep run this week
"One of the reasons I don't like conference tournaments, it hasn't seemed to improve our seed if we do well. Their games - Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Well, there's nothing that we do all year that's Friday, Saturday, Sunday, three games.
"The NCAA Tournament is a game, a day off, a game. So, you know, we're here to, let's tune it up, let's get better, let's play with intensity, let's be together, let's be about each other. Let's play how we have to play for next weekend."
On if not having full roster for much of season delayed team's growth
"Maybe, but it's been the best thing. Because all of a sudden, Isaac (Humphries) got a chance. Charles Matthews got a chance. Derek Willis got a chance. Marcus Lee got a chance. They all got their opportunities. Dom (Hawkins) has had his chance.
"So we're walking into the tournament with a big team. And I always say when you have a deep team you can overcome a lot of stuff - foul trouble, injury, bad play - but when you're playing five guys and two play bad, you just lost. Last year's team, we were so deep, three and four guys could play awful and you still had five to play with.
"We're a deep team, but again, our top five or six are gonna play the most minutes, but the other guys, now we know because of that. It's kind of played well for us."
On if he sees a lightbulb go off over some guys' heads when he explains that in those terms:
Well, we got a couple guys, I'm like, 'This doesn't pertain to you two.'
On if Isaiah Briscoe is one of them
"I tell you, in practice he's shooting the ball so well. I just don't understand in a game where he just - it's a mental block right now, but he'll be fine. For them to be empowered and feel good about self and team, that's all we're trying to do. That's all I'm trying to do as a coach, every single year at this time.
"That's all I want. I want their minds fresh, I want their legs fresh, and let's throw it up and let's go. And we're not - I don't kill ‘em at this time of year. I need them on the court. I need them to play. So, like today's practice will be an hour. The thing we did down in Bridgestone (Arena) was all shooting. We just wanted to make sure that we got shots up."
On how Derek Wills is looking
"He's doing good. I think he's doing fine. And again, you're playing four guys: Alex, Skal, Marcus and him (as big men). And if two of those other guys have it going, then maybe he doesn't play as much. If this team comes out, whoever we're playing and they're playing a lot of zone, he's playing.
"One of those other guys is not playing as much. Just how it is. But I like the fact that Marcus Lee can now settle into energy, block shots, dunk balls, second shots. He can settle into who he is. We don't need more. Alex can be who he - that bulldog that he can be. He can settle in.
"And those other guys can shoot jumpers, do the stuff that those other two don't do as well."
On if Willis can get back in his groove this week
"I don't know. You just don't like the fact that it's three games in three days, but it is, and we'll use it. Believe me, if we're up like 12, I'm not taking guys out. We'll play to win the game and figure out tomorrow tomorrow.
"But these guys, the good news is I played them a lot of minutes, so they know - the guys that will play a lot of minutes have played a lot of minutes all year."
On Tyler Ulis' many awards
"I'm happy for him. You had a guy that when he came here, you had everybody tell me, ‘You got a four-year point guard. Now this is how you should do it.' And, ‘He doesn't need to have all pros.' (Raises eyebrows) Welp, you were wrong again.
"I mean, here's this kid that's gonna be a pro. He'll be drafted this year, after two years. And the greatest thing is I saw his (first) game against LSU; I eventually did watch that game after the other game was over. He wasn't that good that game; he just wasn't.
"Every game we've played, he's gotten steadier and more into how he has to play and how our team has to play. He's led better. He's made better basketball decisions. He's got his teammates involved. He deserves everything that's happening. And he's made everybody's job, including mine, easier."
On if Ulis still plays with a chip on his shoulder
"Yeah, we talked about it. I talked to the team. ‘Is anybody upset they didn't get awards?' And we talked about it. I've had teams where no one got an award (and) my team got so mad we won the tournament. Then there were other times they voted all my guys for the awards because they thought that would soften them up, and I told them, ‘Don't let them do that to you,' and we won the tournament.
"So it is what it is. I think (Ulis) and Jamal are excited about continuing to play, and I would expect that they would play well."
On if Brad Calipari is his most important recruit at UK
"I forgot I was supposed to do this to be honest. I was coming in to work him out, and then I looked, ‘What is this? You guys are all here. What is going on?' Then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot.' So, Eric (Lindsey) is saying, ‘Did you come over by yourself?' Yeah, I was coming over here early to hang out with Brad a little bit."
On if Brad's commitment changes his future plans
"According to my wife it has. Karl Towns' family, Carlton, they were so happy. I said, ‘I promise I will not be as hard on him as I was your son because I sleep with that kid's mom."
On if there are changes he'd make to SEC tournament structure
"No. What they're doing, the gifts their doing, how they're trying to do it, it's all good stuff. They had us go mandatory to that building today. I would have said, ‘Why do that?' We all had practice times set up. So, I didn't think we needed to do it. I thought it was open gym.
"I thought the fans were going to be there, and it wasn't, so we cut it short. We cut it at like 30 minutes. I think the SEC has done a good job. I love this venue. I love Atlanta. They're great venues. Can't remember, I think there's one other that's in the cycle here. (St. Louis). St. Louis is fine. I like St. Louis."
On if helps to have home-like crowds for the rest of the season
"We had support in games we lost on the road. We've won road games in some tough places to play and other places early in the year - UCLA, Ohio State, a couple league games on the road where we had big games and lost them. Again, a young team. Skal wasn't playing. We're just now getting it together.
"And that's what I'm saying: When we're seeded, again, this team is a different team right now. A basketball eye would say, ‘OK now, I don't care what they did in December. I'm looking at them right now, and if you mis-seed a team, whether it's us or anybody else, the team that's punished is the team they play. ‘We didn't deserve playing these guys. How did we get this?'
"So that's why I said I think the committee will be fine. They know the history of how we do this and the teams get better.
On ‘Swaggy Cal'
"I don't know what ‘Swaggy Cal' is. I try to be the same guy all the time. This isn't life or death for me. You don't look at me and say, ‘Oh my God.' It's not life or death, because if it was I'd die all the time. I enjoy what I'm doing, I enjoy these kids.
"Take great pride in seeing their growth individually and as a group.Want to win every game I coach. You guys know, you've been around me, but I don't take it home. If you talk to my wife, I never - she's like some of you, she knows nothing about basketball, so we don't talk about basketball. I go home and we watch the Alaska stuff. T
"his afternoon when I left - anybody watch the Alaska bush people? You do? What's the term they use when they say, ‘Love you?' More. More. They say more. So today she said, ‘Love you.' I said, ‘More.' She just said, ‘Did you just say more? Oh my gosh, we're both going crazy.'"