Ahead of the matchup, head coach John Calipari met with the media to preview Thursday’s matchup. Calipari also gave an updated on injured forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who still looks very unlikely to play Thursday or on Saturday if UK advances.
“Right now I just don’t think it’s in his interests or ours that unless he’s a hundred percent, I would take 97 percent, 95, but you can’t take 80. You can’t,” said Calipari of Vanderbilt. “The games are played at too high a level.”
Here’s a recap of everything Calipari had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Q. Now that you are in Boise, how happy are you to be here?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s been great. Our guys were talking about the mountains and the views. We went to Owyhee Tavern last night, had a great meal. Stopped at a couple of Catholic churches in town. And then we went to DK’s Donuts. I am not a donut eater, but I ate some of those donuts.
I’ve never heard of a place, only in Boise, they’re open from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. then they’re shut down. Who goes at 4 a.m.? So I’m like, policemen, ranchers, farmers? Who goes at 4 a.m.? Unless you’re just getting in. And it doesn’t look like a town like that (laughter).
So we’ll figure out something to do tonight.
Q. Today in high schools across the country a lot of students walked out in protest of gun violence. Do you talk with your guys about social justice issues, about being involved, and being aware of what’s going on in the community?
JOHN CALIPARI: I have. We have at different times. The things that have gone on before them that gave them an opportunity to be who they are, that there are certain things that if they have an opportunity and they feel like they want to make a stand, just understand the consequences. Don’t be pushed to the front of the line because of your fame, so to speak. And know that you stand for everything that they stand for.
So, yeah, we have discussed stuff like that.
Q. Kevin was talking about what he thinks he got out of the season. It was you challenging him not to be complacent, to be more aggressive, to sort of stretch his comfort zone. Could you speak to how that fits into your job, and for him in particular.
JOHN CALIPARI: All these kids that I get when they’re young, some of them stay one year, some of them stay two or three years, four years. We’ve graduated 17 players since I’ve been the coach there. So not all of them leave in one year.
They just did a bracket. How many of you saw the academic bracket? Raise your hand. We were playing Bucknell in the finals. So it’s not just basketball, it’s what we try to do academically.
But here’s what I would say: My first job is to get them to understand they have to conquer themselves first, before they can worry about conquering anybody else. To get them to think different about how they’re going to go about business, how, if you’re undisciplined off the court, you’re going to be undisciplined on the court.
How do you get yourselves to do things that you really don’t want to do? How do you self-evaluate? Because people around you are going to tell you that you are never wrong. It’s always somebody else. They’re going to tell you that, Well, he never takes him out, but he takes you out.
Now, you can buy into all that and never change or you can self-evaluate and say, I don’t like where I am, which then says to you, Now, how do I change? If I do the same things over and over again I’m not changing.
We had a young man this year on our team, Shai Alexander, who was in the gym at 7 a.m. shooting, who would come up in the office and want to watch tape of his turnovers. Who never missed a class. Never missed a tutor. Was always on time. Worked harder than anybody in every practice. Ready? Robert, who works the hardest in the weight room? Shai. And it’s changed who he is and his opportunities and all that.
So for me, a lot of this is mental. How I get them to change how they think about this.
And the other part of this is, how do you get them to understand that they’ve got to share? That this is a team sport. That if you don’t do this together none of you will shine. That took us half a year. That a Kevin Knox, okay, these guys accept that you are going to shoot balls, but you’ve got to rebound and defend now. You’re not taking bad shots because you’re taking shots when you choose to.
The thing with Kevin is he’s the youngest freshman in the country. So he could still be in high school. Sacha is the youngest sophomore in the country. He should be a freshman. These kids, because they’re 6-9, and you look at him and say, Wow, he’s big, that doesn’t mean he’s a grown man. They’re still developing who they are and my job is to love them. To hold them accountable. To keep it real. To make them understand things in no uncertain terms what works and what doesn’t.
Because if my guys choose to leave after a year or two or three, I want them to have success. Right now I think we have 30-some guys or whatever in the NBA, who make a billion dollars, not a hundred million, a billion dollars. And I went in those homes. And those families trusted me with their son. And those families had dreams and aspirations, and this is an opportunity for them to realize the American dream.
And I’ll say it again, 17 kids have graduated. We’ve had a thousand on the APR for the last four or five years, which means that every kid leaves in good academic standing. Why? Because they have a lifetime scholarship. And four kids have already started coming back who left early. We had five kids left with 60 college credits, that’s halfway through.
So, you know, I just don’t want any of us to devalue education just because a kid has a genius. When a kid has a genius as a piano player or golfer or tennis player, it’s not a big deal. But when a kid has a genius as a basketball player, well, he’s taking advantage of education. No. I’ve had four straight A students. Brandon Knight would go to class and be in the gym at 11 o’clock at night. Why? You’re going to leave in a month. Because I don’t want to get a B. I could go on. Great students.
To say these kids don’t belong on a college campus is wrong. And when you say “those kids,” who do you mean when you say “those kids” don’t belong on a college campus? Be more specific who you mean. These kids are benefitting by this experience. And I’ll tell you this, I’m benefitting because I’m having a ball. Coaching these kids, this has been as fun a year as I’ve had.
Does that thoroughly answer what you asked me? I don’t know where that kind of weaved to, but I kind of liked it (laughter).
Q. Can you give us any update on Jarred Vanderbilt?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, the kid wants to play. I don’t think that it’s fair to him or us if he’s not able to go in there and compete at a high level. When he first started playing -- this is what made this year hard. It was hard because we had all freshmen. We started five freshmen. Five freshmen. I don’t know if it’s ever been done, had this kind of inexperience.
But then Jarred joined our team. And then we struggled. And then we started going good. And all of a sudden Jarred is a Dennis Rodman, 10, 12 rebounds every game he played, 15, he could have had 20. Passes, runs, athletic. Then he gets hurt.
Before the tournament, we haven’t played a game, we needed our tournament to figure out how we were going to play in case he cannot play. Now he wants to play and at the end of the day I’ve got to make a decision on what I’m thinking. Right now I just don’t think it’s in his interests or ours that unless he’s a hundred percent, I would take 97 percent, 95, but you can’t take 80. You can’t. The games are played at too high a level.
Great kid and I love the kid. But, you know, my guess is that he will not play tomorrow, didn’t practice with us today. So we’ll figure out from there.
Q. Two-part question: But have you been to Idaho before? If you could elaborate more on the story about telling the guys if they even knew where Boise, Idaho was at?
JOHN CALIPARI: I’ll do stuff like that. I’ll ask them about players, Do you know who Wilt Chamberlain was? So I’ll ask them questions. And how many of you know where Boise? What state is Boise in? And a couple of them raised their hands. And I said, Do you want me to ask you? But I think they all knew.
And I had been to Twin Falls. Great place. I saw Evel Knievel’s launching pad. And I was in the golf course down next to the river. Is it a river? Rapids. Was it a river? I was down there.
And I hate to tell you, one night I drove to Jackpot, Nevada. I was in Jackpot, Nevada and there was sawdust on the floors, back then; it was a few years ago.
But a great campus, College of Southern Idaho. Manicured. I was there for a week. So I stayed a week. And so, yes, I’ve been here.
Q. DK Donuts used to be 24 hours, by the way. Thought I’d let you know. In terms of Davidson’s strengths, they obviously seem like a 3-point shooting team. And you’ve been good perimeter defensive team. Your thoughts on the matchup.
JOHN CALIPARI: They are a really efficient team. They’re an execution team. We’re an inexperienced team. We’re not an execution team. They’re going to take 30 3-point shots. If they make 20, it has been a heck of a season for us. They’re taking 30.
We’ve got to make them difficult. But they run some good stuff and they move that ball. And their assists to baskets made. So in other words, it’s not one-on-one basketball; they’re creating shots for each other. This is one of the most efficient execution teams I’ve seen in years.
So they’re not a 12 seed. They won their tournament. They beat St. Bonaventure and Rhody back-to-back nights. They’re not a 12 seed.
This will be a hard game for us. We know it and our kids know it.
Q. Since you went to DK Donuts, did you try the bacon donut?
JOHN CALIPARI: I did. It was unbelievable. Here’s what I did, I looked at them and I went, Oh, my gosh. So we did the bacon. And I cut it four ways. So I didn’t have -- it’s this big (indicating). I only had like a little bit. And before I could get another little bit it was gone. We were there with five guys.
And then I did the bowtie that had the chocolate and maple together dripping off of it. Is anybody getting hungry right now? There was so much sugar that I won’t sleep tonight. And then I did the apple fritter, and we cut that up. But I only had a little bit.
Folks, I’m not a donut eater, even though you look at me and say, yes, you are a donut eater. I’m not a donut eater. The coffee wasn’t bad, either.
Q. Is the potato a fruit or vegetable --
JOHN CALIPARI: You can’t ask me those kind of questions. People get mad. Vice presidents get killed. They spell the thing wrong. Don’t ask me; I’m here to play basketball.
Q. Sorry to get off the donut food train. You were talking about kind of the history-making nature of your team with all the freshmen. Have you learned anything from this? I know you do this a lot.
JOHN CALIPARI: One of the things I tell these guys all the time is I’ve done this 30 years so there’s nothing I haven’t seen or there’s nothing that you’re going to do that I haven’t had to dealt with. I’ve done it 35 years.
But what you find out, when we struggled, there was a look in their eye of fear. And you learn that they’re 18- and 19-year-old kids who don’t know what the future holds and are looking to me to help them.
When we lost four in a row, again, they were Tennessee, Auburn -- they were all NCAA tournament teams that we lost to. Three of them on a road. Normal teams would have lost four in a row. We had a chance to beat a couple of them. We had a chance with Tennessee, we could have beaten Auburn on the road.
I got a text from one of the guys, Coach, we need you more than ever now. And it kind of told me that they’re looking at me like, What is this? We need you. Don’t, like, jump ship on us and don’t give up on us. And it got me to then sit back and say at my age losing four in a row is difficult. And I stepped back and said, What am I worried about how I feel? I’ve got these kids that have never experienced this. And I have.
And so it just led me to understand sometimes I get away with they’re big and they’re long and they’re athletic and they’re men. No, they’re not. They’re young men. They need this experience. For them to grow they needed to fail, this team. I had them raise their hand, How many of you -- and I called it a crap hole -- you go down that crap hole and you’re fighting to get out? In other words, you can’t make a shot, you can’t make a play, you stink. And every one of them raised their hand, at one point in the season they were down in that hole. And they had to figure out how to come back out of it without being enabled.
Because people enable them. It’s not you. It’s always somebody else. It’s the story of the marching band, that’s a hundred-member marching band in unison, and 99 turn right and your child turns left and you say, What’s wrong with those 99? These things, it’s hard when they go down there because they are so young that they have to say, This is me, and I’ve got to get myself out of it. They needed to fail.
They also needed to fail as a team because we weren’t coming together. We weren’t playing it for each other. We had more turnovers than assists, because everybody was trying to make plays for themselves. But they had to have the adversity.
And I kept saying, even when I evaluate players, I want to know how he plays when it’s not going good, because if he comes with me to Kentucky there are times it’s not going to be right because the other team’s playing like it’s a Super Bowl. And it’s a sold-out arena, and they’re trying to make their name at our expense. How do you play when things don’t go right?
These kids needed it. It’s a great group of kids and their parents who have entrusted me with their sons, good people, and we’ve been able to survive it.
Q. Given the nature of this weekend, four-game tournament, you’ve got to look ahead a little bit, too. Could you talk about a preliminary scouting report on Arizona, particularly Deandre Ayton?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, first of all, I’m telling all of you, I didn’t know where we were seeded until I got in my car after the SEC tournament and my phone started bouncing I was getting so many hits. And then everybody said the same thing: They did it to you again. You’re in a pod that’s ridiculous.
And so I know the four teams here, Buffalo and Arizona, Davidson, and us. That’s all. I know Virginia is above us. I don’t know who is playing Virginia. I don’t know who else is in our bracket. And I have not looked at another bracket and won’t, could care less.
You’re asking me to look ahead? They have good players, a great coach. They’ve got veteran guys. They have a possible No. 1 pick with great size. They’re great. Buffalo is good and has had a great year.
And when I tell these guys -- and again, I’ve done this in this tournament, I don’t know, maybe 20 times, whatever it is, you can’t look ahead because a lot of times you look ahead and the team you’re worried about doesn’t even advance. And you spent three days, My god, we’re going to have to -- they got beat. Who am I worried about now?
So I’d rather not move ahead and I’ll just stay with the game we’ve got at hand, which is going to be very difficult for us to win.
Q. After you lost to Florida at the end of the season and it was not a good performance, and then Vanderbilt goes out. Were you surprised at how well your team played at the SEC tournament, putting three straight really good performances together?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, I knew they were capable of it. But when you say the Florida game, here was the lesson: I told them prior to the game, when you play a noon game -- again, I’ve done this a number of years -- the team that is more ready to play usually wins the game. If both teams are really ready it will come down to the last minute. But if one team is more ready at noon, the other team will let go of the rope. And that’s what happened to us. Again, it’s an experience they had to have.
Now tell me, two of the games we played in the tournament were at what time? Noon. They learned their lesson. Everything here that we’ve been going through is like an experience for them to grow. They’ve not been through anything. I’m a little worried them walking on to this court. I’ve tried to build the whole season towards this, talk about the NCAA tournament all season, but I really don’t know. I have no idea what will happen.
I know we’re prepared. I know they’re in a great frame of mind. I know I’ve got great kids. But this is going to be an unbelievably good execution team. Do we have the discipline to stay in this dance with 25 seconds each time down and talk and move? I don’t know. But I knew what this team was capable of. I kept trying to paint that picture in their mind. This is what we are when we’re at our best.
Q. Back to the teams you might face, and I do appreciate that you’re not looking ahead. You gave a broad summary of what Arizona could do that might concern you. Could you do the same for Buffalo, please?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, because here’s what I would say: The only reason I’ve said that about Arizona, I have not watched them play a game this year. And I have not watched Buffalo. I just happen to know a couple of the guys that Sean has. I haven’t watched either team play. I don’t know if they play man, zone. I won’t watch any tape on any team until I’m done with this Davidson game. And the reason is, is if Davidson beats us, why was I watching any other tape? So I literally don’t know a play they run, either team.
Q. The climate of college basketball right now with the FBI investigation going on, what changes would you like to see being made, considering you’ve been in homes with star athletes and the families and the environments that they come from?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, I’m going to ask you to maybe go back and look at what I’ve said in the past. I’ve been saying the same thing for how many years, you Lexington guys, four, five, six years. And I haven’t changed. And I believe it. I believe that for college kids, this is an unbelievable experience to have a gap year if they need it. I think kids should be able to go from high school to the NBA. I do believe that. But I don’t think we should devalue education. And if the kids do go, so there’s 10 that go, 12, why would we totally change all this?
We just had the highest graduation rate of athletes in basketball and African American athletes in basketball. We just had the highest graduation rate in the history of our sport. And we’re going to upset this? You devalue education if you encourage kids. And who are we encouraging? What kids? Are we encouraging don’t worry about education, you don’t need education, you become a pro. So let’s say 10,000 9th and 10th graders say, I’m not going to do education, and who are we talking about? This isn’t baseball. This is a different sport. This isn’t tennis. This is a different sport. You don’t need education.
So when I tell you that we’ve had the highest graduation rate of African American athletes in basketball, how many of those kids do you think went to school thinking they’re staying one or two years? 90 percent. And they ended up finishing and getting a college degree.
We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking care of kids. I don’t want to get into it, because this is about this NCAA tournament, but there are things that we can do to have a combine after the junior year to recommend, you need to go to the NBA, the rest of you need to go to college. Do we need a basketball rule? Why? If these 15, 18 kids went to the NBA and the others go to college they’re going to have to stay two or three years or they would have gone to the NBA. So we don’t need all that.
If some kid like Anthony Davis grows from 6-3 to 6-11 and he wants to leave after a year, okay. What’s wrong with that? How do we support these families? I didn’t want to do this, but now that you’ve got me started. How do you support these families? I’m in these homes. These families have dignity, they don’t want anybody involved in their lives, they want to do it themselves. But if you look in that refrigerator and there’s a can of corn in there, they may take something. But if they can do it themselves, they’ll do it themselves. Let them get loans. Let the kids that have loans for their insurance, which we already give, if you’re eligible for that insurance, then you don’t need the money there, we’ll loan the money for your families to travel. If your family wants to move to a town they can take a loan and do it. And then we eliminate all this stuff.
These families, again, they want their child to have the best opportunity. They want their child to be with people they trust. And we’ve just got to help them. I come back to this, any decision we make, if we say, Is this right for the kids, you’ll be right. If you don’t worry about the kids and you worry about the sport, you don’t make the right decisions for the kids. And this is all about the kids.
I say this with all respect, a 17-year-old going to the D league, who’s overseeing them? What if something happens? Who’s responsible now? What happens for these kids that come to college? They’ll tell you it’s the best experience ever. I’ve never heard a player say, man, what a great year I had in the G league. Not one. Not one. But they’ll come back and say my year at Kentucky was the best year of my life.
Well, why are we looking at one player and saying this is what college basketball is? I do have a right to talk about academics, and you know you say your kids leave early. 17 have graduated. We have a thousand on the APR for four or five years running. It’s us and Bucknell. Please look at that one there that said when you do by academics it’s Kentucky and Bucknell.
Now, I will say Bucknell beats us, but we’re right there, fighting hard. And I just think that we can do stuff. But to say let’s throw this stuff away because of a couple of things, I just don’t agree with it.