The NCAA Tournament is here, and John Calipari is looking to guide his Kentucky Wildcats to another deep March run.
That begins Friday night when the Cats face Northern Kentucky in what hopes to be the first of many tourney games coming up for UK. On Thursday, Calipari and seniors Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis spoke with the media at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to preview Friday’s game and the rest of the Big Dance.
Here is a recap of everything they had to say, courtesy of ASAP Sports:
COACH CALIPARI: This is a team that I'm really proud to be coaching, a young team, but you're also seeing three seniors up here who carried their weight, took over this team when they needed to, were able to step back when they needed to. Servant leaders, all three of them. They've had a big impact on the year, and it's just fun to see young guys come together with veterans and figure it out together. This team is slowly becoming that team.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the student-athletes.
Q. Maybe Mychal or Dominique might be able to speak to this. Coach Brannen, coming from Alabama, I know he's in charge of some perimeter play out there. Kind of curious, as you look at NKU and their guard play, perimeter play, and you see some things from your history and looking back, a style of play, I guess, if you will, or how do you kind of see their guard play coming from their coach on down?
MYCHAL MULDER: We haven't watched a whole lot of film. Talented team from what we have seen throughout the year. A team that we respect. They're in our state, and it's great to be able to play them in our first game of the tournament.
But they look like a talented team, and we're excited for tomorrow.
DOMINIQUE HAWKINS: Like Mike said, we didn't watch a lot of film on them, but we're definitely going to respect their guards. They've got great guards, athletic, can get to the rim. We're really excited to be able to play an in-state team. Hopefully, it will be a great game.
COACH CALIPARI: Can I just say something? We spent a lot of time on ourselves right now, and the stuff that they've watched has been personnel tape. We do all that stuff, and they'll watch 15-20 minutes of tape on everybody we play. So please don't take it as disrespect. That's just how we do this.
Q. Mychal and Coach, Mychal, I think there's 26 Canadian guys in the tournament. Just what does that say about the level of Canadian basketball? I think the last Canadian guy to win a title was Kyle Wiltjer with Kentucky, if I'm not mistaken.Also, Coach, if you could kind of add what you've seen coming out of Canada.
MYCHAL MULDER: It's a special thing for me personally. I take a lot of pride in that. Canadian basketball seems to be on the uprise. I was fortunate enough to be a teammate and close friend with Jamal the last year. To be able to share that experience with him, coming from the same area, it's really special to us. We take a lot of pride in it, a lot of pride in our country. To see Canadian basketball growing and a lot more Canadians coming through the NCAA and into the NBA and stuff like that is great to see.
COACH CALIPARI: When he had senior night, we sang the Canadian National Anthem, which was really neat, by the way. I love Toronto. If there are any players in Toronto, I will go up there myself to recruit them because I think that's one of the great cities in the world.
Q. Derek, your improved defense the last ten games has been remarkable. Why? More concentration? Where did it come from?
DEREK WILLIS: I think it's just coming down to the postseason. I want to crack down on a lot of things, try to limit the defensive lapses that I would have in the earlier part of the season, even towards the middle.
So kind of have a little bit more sense of urgency this time of the year, and it's kind of last go-around. So, like I said, just want to limit all those lapses and make the most out of the games and carry on with the experience that we have.
COACH CALIPARI: Tell him the truth. You got engaged and your fiance said you better start guarding people. All of a sudden, he's gotten better.
DEREK WILLIS: I try and do -- ever since I got engaged, I've been playing better, and we've been winning. Hopefully, it keeps going.
Q. Dominique, what has this ride been like for you, from high school to now, helping Kentucky pursue another national championship, all the opportunities you've had with the team?
DOMINIQUE HAWKINS: It's been unbelievable. This season has been my best season. A group of guys that actually wants me to be successful is what motivates me. My teammates want me to do good. I want to do good for them. I've got the whole state of Kentucky behind me. Kentucky kid. Everybody's rooting for me to do good.
Q. Dominique, what are your memories playing against Lavone Holland in the state championship game, and I think his AAU teammates as well, thoughts on him and the memory of the awesome game that you had?
DOMINIQUE HAWKINS: I remember a lot about that game. I know Lavone, like you said, he was on my AAU team. He was a great player. I don't remember much about state. I remember the last shot is what I remember right now and us winning.
Q. Derek, what do you tell the young guys as they prepare to get into the NCAA tournament, all of the hoopla, media and everything, to stay focused, what do you tell them?
DEREK WILLIS: A lot of it is just kind of leading by example. A lot of the games we've been in, especially the SEC tournament, I feel like that was definitely a good learning experience for us being in that kind of environment, leading into this weekend.
So just being out there, staying calm. I've been there in past seasons. Whether I was playing or not, I at least got to watch it. Then with last year, I had a little bit of experience with the rounds we've made it in.
So like I said, just having that past experience I think kind of gives me a little edge over the freshmen. Then, again, they're all helping each other out.
THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the players? Thanks, fellas. Continue with questions for Coach.
Q. Coach, you all have been able to win games without Monk taking it over in the second half midway in the season. What's one of the reasons for that and is that a reason you think you have a chance to go far in this tournament?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, there's a couple things that have happened. Early in the year, we didn't know who we were. We were just flying up and down the court. Other teams didn't know who we were.
As the season went on, we had teams that said one thing, you're not letting them run. We had to learn to play in the half court. We had to learn to grind it out.
Bad shots lead to bad defense. Like wow, you're not guarding. Wow, you take a bad shot. It's a breakout layup. The second thing is we got down 18, 19, 17 in different games and came back and won, learned we could do it. We also got up 22, 23 and look around, it's a 3-point game. So there were so many things we had to learn.
The other side of it is we learned to learn with Malik going one for 10, 2 for 10. He learned to play going 2 for 10. You're not going to go 2 for 20. Go 2 for 10 and rebound the ball, defend, do other things to help us win.
We learned to play without De'Aaron Fox. We beat Florida without De'Aaron Fox. We learned to win without Isaiah Briscoe because Dominique played so well. We learned to play either with Wenyen, go small, go big. This is one of those experiences. It's always a process with us because they're new teams.
We have the youngest team in this tournament, so it takes time to really figure things out and learn. But we've learned to win a lot of different ways.
Q. I'll reiterate the question, Coach. What have you seen from John and what he likes to do?
COACH CALIPARI: I have watched the tape, okay? So the games that I've seen, their tournament games, the UIC game, they run their stuff. They have a five-man that can shoot threes. Their guards are not afraid. They'll shoot 3s. They'll fly up and down the court. They run good stuff in the half court. They space the court. Their pick-and-roll stuff is good. Their man-to-man is more of a let's make sure you're going to take a tough shot, and we're going to rebound and run.
They do play a 2-3 zone. I've seen a little bit of 1-3-1. Run good out-of-bounds plays on the baseline. John's done a good job. They've won 25 games. This is a legitimately good team.
Again, I'm just hearing scores. I'm not really watching games, but I'm hearing scores, two-point game, one-point game.
If you expect in this tournament, to try to bury somebody, it's hard. It's hard. You're just trying to say let's play as well as we can play.
Teams this year, many teams had house money against us, not supposed to win. They're not expected to win. We were expected to win. They're throwing balls, shooting bank shots, hook shots, runners, ball's going in. Who is that guy? He just made three 3s. Those are his first three 3s of the season. That's his first, that kind of stuff.
So you've got to come in this, let's worry about us. Let's play with energy, knowing this team is good enough, Northern, to beat us. Let's be at our best and see what happens.
Q. John, you've been the overwhelming favorite when you guys were undefeated coming in here to, like, this year where you're one of a collection of teams that certainly could win it. What's more challenging?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, I'd like to be undefeated coming into this again. That would have been better. Every year, you come in, it's different. I remember when we won our conference tournament by 25 and our reward was to have to play Ohio State as the 1-1 seed. If you're lucky enough to beat them, beat North Carolina with seven pros, good luck to you. Have fun.
And Brandon Knight made a shot at the buzzer to beat Ohio State, and we ended up in the Final Four. I can remember when we were seeded 8, 8, 8, and we ended up having to play Wichita State, who was undefeated.
And then, all of a sudden, Aaron Harrison's bombing balls at the buzzer, and we marched to the final game of the season.
So we've seen -- been doing this 30 years now. You may not know this, I'm not the 32-year-old coach anymore. So you just go in with an open mind about every game.
For us, I have a different team every time we walk into this thing, so I don't know what to expect other than try to get my guys in a good frame of mind. Don't be afraid to lose. Don't be afraid to miss shots. Don't be afraid to be aggressive. Go for it. Play to win. Don't think of anything else. Forget about score. Just keep playing to win. If that's not good enough, it's been a heck of a season.
Q. John, has this team turned out to be deeper than you envisioned back in October? If so, why? How does that impact going forward?
COACH CALIPARI: It's turned out to be deeper because our seniors have played well. Now Dom, Mychal and Derek, along with freshmen, Wenyen and Isaac, need to step up a little bit. All these guys, it's do what you do, just be a little bit better right now. Do what you do and try to do it for 40 minutes.
Your whole day should be on preparing to play great for 40 minutes. If you hit your C-game, you're not A. A-game, you're in the zone. You're making everything. Now you're in the C-game. Now you're not at your best. Make easy plays. Don't try to lose your mind. Just make the easiest play you can make, make easy shots you can make, and then get on to the next game.
So these kids, I think because we have seniors who have been experienced, it makes us a different team, a deeper team.
Q. John, what is your expectation for Bam in this tournament? What are you looking for him to do?
COACH CALIPARI: It's really funny. I've had big guys that none of them were fives. Carl's not a five. He's a double-double machine in the NBA right now. The reason is he's mad he didn't make the All-Star Game, so now he's trying to take it out on everybody.
Neither is Antoine Davis, neither is DeMarcus Cousins. Bam is not a five. But the way, we're playing him. He's given us post presence, but he can shoot. I'll do a drill today. He'll be shooting 3s so everybody can see. I didn't know he can do that. You didn't know Anthony could do it, and you didn't know Carl could do it because I didn't let them do it, but they're doing okay.
I think here's a guy that can guard five positions. He can make free throws. He can guard pick and roll. He can play in pick and roll, and he can space the court because he's skilled. 6'10", 6'9", 6'10" in there, a beast head on the rim and guard five positions. Value. I mean, that's a kid that goes in and has an impact because of that.
Q. Cal, what's your take on Tom Crean being out at Indiana?
COACH CALIPARI: Just disappointed. Hard profession. It's just disappointing. I feel for him and his family. I've been fired. I know what it's like. I know what it is to your family, your wife, your kids. They take it harder than you take it.
Two Big Ten titles the last four years, had injuries this year, beat North Carolina, beat Kansas, have injuries, stuff happens. But you know what? In this profession, you're hired and you're fired. That's the two things that happen. And you have to buy into that coming in.
Whether I think it's right or not, I'm just disappointed. I'm disappointed for him and his family. But let me say this, someone will hire him because he's Tom Crean. He can coach. He works. Great integrity. There will be a job. If he wants to take another job, he'll get it. If not, he'll sit out and do what I did. I became the highest paid amateur golfer in the country for about six months.
Q. Coach, you mentioned obviously the difficulty of the profession. On NKU's side, to go from division 2 to 1, with nine wins to flip that record to get here --
COACH CALIPARI: How about their facility, their arena? I mean, they have an arena that I walked in and I was, like, wait a minute. What is this? And I'm looking around like they've done it right.
Their campus, the community they're building. They've got Cincinnati right over the bridge, right around the corner from them. And what he's done, it's an amazing thing. And that league is hard because Oakland, Valpo, you've got -- you know, you've got tough teams in there that can play with anybody in the country.
So he -- I know the school's excited, and they should be. And I knew John when he was coaching at Alabama, and I knew what they did then and how good a coach he was. So they've done great, good players. Be interesting tomorrow at midnight when we start this game.
Q. John, Mick Cronin was a little critical of the pod system and the way things are going in terms of selling tickets. You guys and Louisville are here. It's going to be a great crowd, local teams. How do you feel it's been structured the last few years to protect top seeds close to home?
COACH CALIPARI: The biggest thing they're starting to become more transparent. There were less glitches because they're more transparent. There are things they can do to be even more transparent, the S-curve. Then move people around the S-curve because of league, the top four seeds.
League tournaments, before they start, make an announcement what they mean for every league. For every league, this is what league tournaments mean. Make that announcement. You can't have one team move and have another team not move who beat the fifth team in the country and the third team in the country and they stay. You can't. Tell us all what it means.
The more transparency, this thing is going to get better. I thought they did the best job of seeding this year than I've seen in eight years, and you're all amazed I'm saying something nice about that committee. I'm just telling you, I watch closely, and I keep saying, they were more transparent this year than they've ever been.
Now, let's go the Full Monty, just keep being more transparent because this is for these kids. This isn't for coaches. If the kids ever said we're not playing the games, you're not getting free meals. I mean, we're not coaching. A.D.s aren't in hotels. This is for them.
Whatever we do, let's just keep that in mind. The timing of the games, the transparency, not for coaches and
A.D.s, for the players to see it, so they understand why they got in and why they didn't and why they moved and why they're playing who they are.
It's about those kids. I'm telling you, I think they're moving in the right direction. I think the committee is moving in the right direction, and I think if they keep being more transparent next year, there were one or two seeds everybody asked about. Think about it. Other years, there was uproars. This year, there wasn't.
Next year, the year after, the year after, if there's more transparency, the thing will all be about the kids and the games and nothing about the selection, which is the way it should be.
Q. Coach, I'm curious the response on your end about your podcast a season into it. Has it taken as much or more time than you thought it might to get guests and do this every week?
COACH CALIPARI: Does anybody -- no. It takes me about 30 minutes a week. Does anybody know what a podcast is because I didn't know what it was? Never heard of a podcast. I only did it because no other coaches are doing it. That's my question. Any other coaches doing podcasts? No. Then I'm doing it.
Now, we had friends of mine on. It's like two guys drinking coffee, and you're a fly on the wall. There's been over a million listens. Did you hear what I just said? People are like crazy out there. We don't know that. There were a million listens to these podcasts.
Will I do it again next year? I don't know. I'm hoping 20 other coaches do them so I can stop doing it. Then I don't have to do it. But right now, I'm like the only coach that does it. So now I'm done until the tournament's over, so I'll spend no time on it, and I didn't for this. I let them hear my news conference and my talk to my kid. That's it. I told them I'm focused on this right now, and I'm not even going to spend 30 minutes on that, so I won't.
When it's all done, probably do a couple more episodes and that's it and then figure out if I want to do it next year.
Q. Cal, you said right before this season, you thought Bam could sort of be on a track like Carl and Anthony in that he'd get better and better and better as the season went on. Maybe didn't look that way for a little while, but is he kind of exactly what you thought? And how important -- you've said if you don't have a post presence, you're a fraud.
COACH CALIPARI: Right. Let me say this, this kid, how many of you are frustrated he doesn't get the ball enough? Like you are frustrated, media. You don't even have a dog in the hunt. Give him the ball!
He never says a word, never says one word. One time he came up to me during a game and said, Coach, you may want to tell them to throw me the ball once in a while. He smiled. He and I laughed. That's the only time he said anything.
He just plays. Kenny Payne at halftime, I can't believe it. Throw him the ball! I mean, and it's not that the guys are selfish. It's that they're playing too, and we're trying to figure each other out.
But he's gotten better. Again, the biggest thing is he can guard five positions. Look, when you can guard pick and roll the way he does, you have great value. When you can make free throws, it means you can shoot.
Now, all of a sudden, you're skilled with the ball and you're athletic and you can fly, that's not normal. There's only one in five years like that. We've been lucky at Kentucky because we've had some guys that are bigger.
Now, they're bigger than him, but they're fours. That's what he's going to be. He's a four. He's not a five.
Q. John, something I've always been curious about. There's times this year where you've gotten after Isaiah really hard and he's come back at you just as hard. You see it with DeMarcus Cousins. I'm curious about take on coach/player interaction and how that has changed from 30 years ago?
COACH CALIPARI: I was the same way. Many times I'm getting on a kid because I don't think he's shown enough emotion or energy, like you've got more than this. I've got -- okay, now play that way. Just trying to get them to show they're alive. Are you alive? Like you look like you're going -- so many times, I'm doing that.
If there's a time that I don't need it to come back, I'll say stop and they'll stop. Short of that, I'm Italian. I'm emotional. And I expect them not to be and they're in this game flying up and down and I'm sweating and losing my mind and I get on a kid, but you can't say anything? Don't you say one -- what?
I've had guys come back at me. I can remember back in the UMass days, we could be more physical then. You can't be physical now. Back then, I was stronger and more agile than I am right now.
Q. Coach, you've hinted at it a little bit. Is there a challenge with an unknown and late start, especially with how people know diets and rest and you add in the sports science stuff? But then, I mean, it could be 9:30, could be late.
COACH CALIPARI: And that worries me. But the thing that worries you more is you've got the youngest team in the tournament, and they've never been in this tournament setting. You're trying to talk them through, but you can't. They have to feel it.
We have veterans that I can go to, but we'll see. You don't know. I mean, that's what makes this tournament what it is. You don't know. You may think you know, but you do not know. And teams upsetting teams, that's what the whole tournament's about. You just don't want to be one of those teams that gets upset. Let it be somebody else.
Q. Coach, NKU's kind of in the same boat here, but what does it do for a team's confidence to make the trip just right up 65 to Indianapolis? What does it do to the confidence knowing that you're playing so close to home?
COACH CALIPARI: We've played here a bunch. Indianapolis, when you talk about sites, Indianapolis,
New Orleans, you know what I mean, San Antonio, you're talking about the sites that really are so conducive to these things because everything is close.
So when you come in, it's the whole environment. It's all of it. We love playing in Indianapolis. I mean, I love playing games up here, tournaments games or games in general. This is a neat city.
They've brought some Pittsburgh here, where I grew up, Primanti Brothers, if you want to try your french fries on your sandwich, they brought Pittsburgh here. So we like it.
It will be good for their fans, good for our fans, easy to get to. But Louisville, Dayton, think of the teams that are here that travel. Wichita travels. They travel. If you have tickets, hold onto them. Don't put them in your pocket. Hold them in your hand. They're going to have value.
Q. John, I believe you said something Sunday about we're going to see if there are any weaknesses in our defense, anything to work on. Wonder if you discovered anything.
COACH CALIPARI: You've just got to be prepared for what if this happens, what if that happens. What are we going to do? You can't say if the tanks come over that hill, guys, if you see the top of the tank, pray your rosary beads because we're going down. You can't.
If they come over that way, what are we going to do? What's our options? What else can we do? We can't just cave in. We've got to fight. We've got to do something. That's where you are as a coach at this time.
You can't give that all to the players. I will not -- I refuse to overwhelm them with tape of the other team or more than what we do. We'll be prepared as coaches if we need to do stuff, but I want them to have fresh legs, fresh minds. They're not overwhelmed with video. Let's go play basketball.