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John Calipari talks first win, growing pains, zone defense and more

John Calipari had plenty to talk about after Kentucky’s first survival of the new season.

Utah Valley v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats are 1-0, but it’s about as uneasy of a 1-0 as John Calipari can remember.

in the span of one game, Cal watched his young Cats trailing by double digits in the second half to Utah Valley, only for them to storm back with an 18-0 and take control before holding on for a 73-63 win.

After the game, Cal pointed out the obvious in that his young Cats have some serious growing pains ahead.

Q. What did you think of the way it went for you?

JOHN CALIPARI: Now you just asked me enough that I could end the press conference and just talk, okay? The start was kind of expected. We shot 21 percent in the first half and at halftime I said, this is good for us, let's see who we are. Let's see who is willing to fight. We went zone and it kind of got us going. But again, and that's what we should use the zone for, but we, we had too many guys that were just getting beat on the dribble. Too many guys out of position. But that's what happens when you have all freshmen and a couple sophomores. That's exactly what you see. But I was pleased with the guys. The second half you win by what you win by, you out rebound them by whatever, you hold them to 40 percent, we just didn't shoot the ball well. We didn't -- we missed, I think they told me, 15 shots within two or three feet and some of it is because they had a shot blocker. And let me say this, Mark (Pope) has done a great job with that team. Their point guard kind of surprised us. I didn't know that he could get by us and get in the lane like he did. But I was happy with how Wenyen (Gabriel) played and competed. 13 rebounds and again he goes 3-13 and believe me, he missed layup, layup, wide open layup, and stuff happens. What I like is he kept playing. He didn't act like, well I'm going to act like I don't care right now. He kept playing. And that's what you have to do. I thought Nick (Richards) did some good stuff. Kevin (Knox) kind of seemed out of it. Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) and Quade (Green), Quade's a better shooter than he had. Like again he missed three shots that he usually would make two of the three, because they were wide open. But they double-teamed us and we had just worked on double-teaming the post yesterday, folks, and thank goodness we did. We just worked on it. Like guys, okay, if they happen to double-team us, here's what we'll do.

Q. I don't know if concerned is the right word, but what you curious when you went on the 18-0 run it felt like the atmosphere in the building, that the game was over, even though it was just six points. Were you curious how your team would respond?

JOHN CALIPARI: I wasn't looking at the score that much. Right now with this team I can't be concerned with the score, it's, are they playing the right way, do they have a competitive spirit, are they fighting, are they playing through fatigue, are they doing it together or is it one or two guys, do they keep breaking down. You understand, if one or two guys keep breaking down, they got to come out. You got to figure it out. Again, as hard as I've been on them in practice, I backed up and I told you I would. Now I'm going to go attack my dog when I go home, but this is who they are. I cannot -- I said Sacha (Killeya-Jones) and Wenyen, how about that? You guys have no idea how he coached us early last year. To try to get those guys -- it was a different group. This team is different. I'm never, I've never been this hard on a team in practice since I've been here. You know it was funny, I mentioned this today, I got a call this morning, Edgar Padilla's son is, who is from Puerto Rico and was there when the storm hit and his son's going to a prep school in New England, they had to get him out of Puerto Rico. And he went over to see UMass practice and I said, well how was it? He said it was okay. He said, I just, the coach had me talk to the team and then I talked to the coach by myself with him and he said, I told him what you taught us, coach, you defined and redefined what work was. We didn't know. Like this team, I'm defining what work is. How about this: a shoot around. They don't know, they think a shoot around is let's go shoot hooks. I mean, this is new. So, one, I've got to teach them, hold them accountable, but I just can't -- there's no reason for me to act like they should know and get frustrated or mad when they don't know. I told you, we just did trapping the post yesterday, thank goodness we did it.

Q. You mentioned in the preseason that Wenyen was a different player. Would he have been able to shake off those missed shots and get 13?

JOHN CALIPARI: No, no, no, no. When he went down that rabbit hole, he was down there. Now he pops back up and he keeps playing and he has -- the biggest thing is when I recruited him I recruited an energy guy. And then he became a perimeter shooter. Now you're an energy guy, who happens to be able to shoot, too. Now he didn't today, but that's who he is. And we need a bunch of guys like that. I thought Shai played that way, I thought Quade tried and did some good stuff. The communication, there's a lot of stuff lacking, but I'll say it again, when you're playing these kind of games and you shoot 21 percent, you're not going to be, don't matter who we play, I mean and this team, Utah Valley, they're going to win they're share of games now. They're big. We missed a lot of shots because of the big guy. Their guard play, they have got a couple guys that are out that can shoot, but 11 (Connor Toolson) can shoot, they're legit.

Q. How much better are your guys when they can get out in transition and how much are they going to have to offer the course of the season, become much better in the half court?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well how do you get, if we're good in transition how do you get in transition? Right and we're trying to tell them. And we got a couple guys keep breaking down and it only takes one guy to break down. You got to swarm defensively and I kept telling them, we came to the huddle, I said, do you understand that we're doing this with defense. Not zone defense. Defense. And whether it's man or zone, this is who you have to be so we can go and play in the open court. I thought at the end where I made them grind it out, I thought they did alright. I thought Hami (Diallo) played pretty good. I thought, if that's who Hami is every night, we're going to be fine. Now, defensively, he's got a long way to go, but he's now saying, coach, tell me how you want me to play offensively. And he's playing that way.

Q. First of all, is Quade healthy and if he is, how much of his role tonight was about him versus how Shai was playing defensively?

JOHN CALIPARI: No, the only reason -- and I called him in today and I called Wenyen in today -- and I just said, look, we basically got seven starters and it may be game to game. I may start different guys next game. We got seven guys that are playing. Then you have Sacha who I thought did good stuff today, could have played a little bit more, but Kevin Knox probably played too many minutes and Shai probably played too many minutes. They probably needed six, seven less minutes. But some of it was some other guys weren't playing well, we had to take them out. But I thought Quade, 21 minutes, he probably deserves another five, six minutes. But you know what else I told them, doesn't matter who starts, people are evaluated by who finishes the game and who finished the game for us? Quade. Because he can make free throws, he can make decisions. He'll talk, he's very, very vocal. He's going to be fine.

Q. Was Utah Valley what you expected coming in or did they show a little bit more?

JOHN CALIPARI: I knew they would be a veteran team and older players and I knew they had a good run at the end of last year to where they built their confidence. We didn't know their guard play would be as good or as fast and they were able to run by us now and we got our guards are pretty good, but those guys were able to fly by us. So but we knew about their size, I mean I watched their scrimmage and I thought they did really good in that game against Dixie.

Q. Two-part question. Can you estimate how much you've used zone over the years and given the youth of this team, are you likely to use it a lot more as the season progresses?

JOHN CALIPARI: I probably am, but let me say this, first of all. I have had seasons where we have not played one down of zone and I've had seasons where we play one-team zone, because they struggle against zone. The issue becomes I have a responsibility to teach these kids how to play pick and roll defense, how to stay in front of people, man-to-man. I mean, from here on there is no more zone. I mean, they're going to have to learn. But I also have a responsibility to win. So I'll play as much as I have to, to win a game. I mean I'm not -- what happened was, we had a group of five who we had been working with in the zone but when I subbed, we weren't as good in the zone. So basically you have five guys and then it's okay, how many minutes can you play with those five in a zone. Can you get through two timeouts and play six, seven minutes? If we played seven minutes today in the zone, would you say that's more than we played all of last year?

Q. Close to it.

JOHN CALIPARI: And the second thing is, I've never clapped or cheered as much in a game either. More this game than all of last season. Whatever this team needs, I'm going to have to do. We're young, we're long, there's just so much we have to do and part of this early is going to be about survival. We survived this game. Survived it. Now we got Vermont who cannot wait, I heard they were doing back flips in their rooms watching this game. They're a two-time NCAA team last two years and all of their players are back. You don't think they can wait to come in here when they saw what they saw? So we're going to, that one -- Sunday afternoon's going to be even harder, 36 hours, they haven't played, they're not going to have a game under their belt, but we're going to have a 36-hour break and have to play again.

Q. It's not common that alum comes in here and coaches against you. Curious about your relationship with Coach Pope and what you've thought of the job he's done so far?

JOHN CALIPARI: I've always respected him. He's, obviously, being a graduate from here, you keep an eye on stuff, but the one thing that really disappointed me, you know, is that his ovation was better than mine. But, you know, it was -- I love watching tape of a guy coach. And then I can go up and talk to him and tell him what I'm seeing and how he's coaching. And it's not an easy job, it's a hard job. And what he's doing in the WAC they're moving up, moving up, moving up, and that's what you try to do when you take over a program. And I can't imagine that that whole state was rocking in the first half. And I would imagine even after the game they walk away and say, you know what, we're going to be all right.

Q. Most of your guys will talk your ear off off the court. Why is it so difficult for you to get them to communicate with each other one the court?

JOHN CALIPARI: Because they're freshmen, they're 18 and 19-year-olds. And their whole life you have to understand has been about themselves, like when they play -- they don't worry about anybody else, they only worried about themselves. At night when they go to bed, they would dream about themselves. I mean, that's what it is with young kids. And until they get hit in the mouth and until they get knocked down and they start realizing they're going to have to talk, the only way you grow is through adversity. We had some in the first half. I loved what I saw. That we fought. I loved the group that fought. That created that gap. But again, this is going to be how we play, do we play zone, how do we play man-to-man? Is this a grind it out kind of team? Is it a post-up team? Maybe a post-up team? How many teams have you seen me play that way with? I mean I'm going to try whatever I can to put these young men in the best position for them and for us. And there's no, this is how it is here. You try things, you experiment, you watch it, some of the stuff I like, some of the stuff I won't like, and I'll throw it out.

Q. How much do you think Vermont has veteran players who can kind of test the young guys that have you?

JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, they will be an execution team. We're playing the second game against a NCAA Tournament level team. They're picked to win their thing again and go to the tournament. So, and it's all good. I mean, we play Harvard, we play UIC, we play all these teams are like teams that they're saying are NCAA Tournament level teams with veteran players. Guess what? Good for us, let's play them. Let's embrace it and know it's going to be hard to win these games, it's not what we look like right now, it's going to be what we look like in February, maybe March, let's hope it doesn't, we don't wait until April. But we are what we are right now and we won a game. I told them after, losing stinks, it makes you sick to your stomach. Winning is fun. Even if you played bad, you better enjoy winning. Enjoy any time you win a game.