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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: John Calipari Staying Ahead of the Curve

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John Calipari has been one of the most successful coaches in college basketball. How does he continue to thrive?

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

John Calipari does not shy away from getting his ideas out to the public. For Big Blue Nation, he's been as open and candid about his teams as any coach in America. This is great for us because it gives us an opportunity to see his vision for the program and it gives us an idea of what the team will look like before the season even begins.

Cal has done it again with his latest entry over at his blog. He emphasizes that he and his staff are not changing the way they do things at Kentucky in how they approach a "Players First" mentality. That's never going to change. But what ideas does he have in order to stay ahead of the curve?

When he started at Kentucky, the one and done system was frowned upon and many college coaches were openly disdainful of the rule and didn't want their program to be "that type of program". So Cal got the best recruits in the country, dominated college basketball, and sent them to the pros. Rinse and Repeat.

But now, the college game has caught up. Coaches like Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski have embraced the model while Rick Pitino is doing the same thing with fifth-year transfers.

In order to make Kentucky the team being chased and not doing the chasing, Cal has to adapt and evolve. And nobody does it better than him.

Welcome Back, Dribble-Drive

Stop me if you heard this one before: this new team will be the best dribble-drive style basketball team that Cal has had at Kentucky. Well, it's not just scuttlebutt, it's coming straight from the man himself:

I made the decision to go to the Dribble-Drive Offense we were winning 75 percent of our games. People looked at me like I was nuts. Well, we started winning 90 percent of our games when we went to the Dribble-Drive. It gave us more of an opportunity to win and was something people had to adjust to, and most importantly it helped our kids.

This was Cal's bread and butter when he was at Memphis. Sometimes to stay ahead of the game, you have to reach back into your bag of tricks and bring something out that the opponents haven't seen in a long time. The current team will have the athletes at the guard positions to effectively utilize the offense.

The three principles of the DDO are:

  • Spacing
  • Creating Gaps
  • Attacking
There won't be many guards better at creating gaps and attacking than DeAaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Isaiah Briscoe. It will be important to have shooters on the perimeter for kick-outs, Derek Willis and Monk can fill that need, and finishers around the rim to clean up or be used as primary offensive targets. Bam Adebayo will be particularly adequate in that regard.

This will be a much different team than last seasons. Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis were fabulous but this wasn't their strength.

The guards we have this year are totally different from a year ago. The bigs we have and the players we have with length – guess what – are totally different than we had last year. To me, this means we as a staff have to think and prepare differently to play to the strengths of our players.

Changing NBA, Changing College Game

Calipari likes his program to be as close to an NBA franchise as possible. I don't know how many coaches follow the NBA as closely as Cal does, but it cannot be many. Here is what he said about the state of the NBA and how the style in the pros may affect his team:

Where is the game going? LeBron James was the biggest player on the floor 50 percent of the time in the NBA Finals. Golden State shot 40 3s per game. How do we make sure we’re moving in the same direction? That’s what I’m spending time on.

If we don’t think in those terms of how we can do things better, we aren’t moving forward and we aren’t getting better. My hope is you watch our team and you see where we’re trying to take it.

I'm honestly shocked he didn't use the term "positionless players" here because that, in essence, is what he is talking about by bringing up the fact that LeBron James was the biggest player on the floor 50% of the time in the Finals.

LeBron is 6'8 and can play anywhere from the center position to point guard. Kentucky doesn't have anyone of LeBron James' caliber on the team (no college team in America or on planet earth does) but Bam Adebayo is 6'9 or 6'10, depending on where you look, and is a guy that is as athletic as he is powerful.

If this is the direction that John Calipari is going to go, then how does Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard fit into the plan? They are more of a traditional style of big men than Bam or Sacha Killeya-Jones or Wenyen Gabriel. The latter players are going to fly around, grab rebounds, and have the ability to play off the dribble. The former don't share those same skills.

The good news is that Cal will have options. If one way isn't working in a game, he has the power to try something different. He has the personnel to adjust this year. He did not have that luxury last season. Which brings me to the next point...

Admitting Mistakes

Cal has been very forthright in his comments about Skal Labissiere. He admits he screwed him up:

When you think about individual players like Skal, I tried to use the lesson plan we used for Anthony and Karl. It wasn’t the right one. We adjusted, but it was late. He’s still going to be fine because he learned to fight, he didn’t blame anyone and he learned to trust. He was still a first-round draft pick and is going to have a terrific career. But, we could have done better. I could have done better.

Not many coaches would have admitted this. He wanted and needed Skal to play a specific way for his team to be the best it could be. But it didn't work out like he had planned. Instead of playing to Skal's strengths he tried to make him something he wasn't and that is a failure that many coaches continue to repeat.

He eventually figured out how to use Skal but it was too little too late. The kid's confidence was already crushed and it was too late in the season to totally rebuild it. Cal will now emphasize player needs over his needs.

Thrive, Not Survive

If you’re not striving to be the best team, win a championship and win all the games, you’re just trying to survive. There’s surviving and then there’s thriving. I want this program always to thrive.

With this statement, Calipari is making it clear that while getting guys to the NBA is all fine and well, but the ultimate goal is to win championships. Yeah, I know he's said differently and that's the narrative, but what coach doesn't want to win the title every season?

Cal has a certain amount of pride and he's competitive as hell. Make no mistake that he wants to win and he will do whatever it takes. This is a message to the fan base saying, "Look guys, I want to win as much as you do and that's what I'm trying to do here." The NBA talk is for the recruits because that is their ultimate goal. But has that message gone stale?

We now are looking at different approaches to home visits, evaluations, and exactly what the characteristics are that we’re looking for. Our recruiting has been pretty solid. Well, let’s make it even better.

The world is changing and how these young people get information is changing. The environment around them is changing. We want to change with them. I’m not looking to use the same lesson plan I’ve used the last five years

Now players see that they can go to Duke and be drafted high. Or they can go to California. Or Kansas. Or LSU. Or not go to college at all like Thon Maker. So what is up his sleeve as he now enters into one of the most important recruiting cycles of his career at Kentucky. He says that up to seven players will be gone after this season. That's a lot of holes to fill. With Duke and Coach K stealing a bit of thunder, Tom Izzo getting into the game, and players choosing non-traditional powerhouse programs, Cal is again going to have to reinvent his approach.

Because he wants to be the best recruiter out there. He doesn't want to survive with these coaches on the recruiting trail. He wants to leave them in his dust.