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John Calipari talks Wildcats, playing amid COVID-19, and more

Calipari gives a nice breakdown of his 2020-21 roster as the new season inches closer.

Calipari Big Blue Drew - Sea of Blue

As the Wildcats prepare for the upcoming season, head coach John Calipari met with the media Monday to talk about the newest edition of Kentucky basketball.

There, Calipari talked about the immense potential of highly-touted freshmen Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke, how his team is adjusting to a world where COVID-19 has changed the game, and Olivier Sarr’s eligibility among other topics.

Here is a recap of what Cal had to say via UK Athletics.

On the team becoming a Final Four contender with Olivier Sarr’s immediate eligibility …

“We’re better. You know, I had to remind my team yesterday that because they’re doing a good job of competing against him. Isaiah (Jackson) and Lance (Ware), I mean, these guys, they’re not just giving way now, So I said, ‘Understand his last two ACC games he had 55 points and 20 rebounds.’ And I said, ‘Now, they weren’t great teams. You know they were Duke and Notre Dame.’ When I say that, I’m joking obviously. But he had 55 and 20. And I said, ‘When you’re competing against him, I’m not sure another guy in our gym could have had 55 and 20. So, you’re competing against a really good player, which tells me we’ve got some good guys.’ ”

On his impressions of the Chris Mack video, the schedule and where the Louisville series stands …

“Now, do you honestly think I watched that video? You guys know me. I didn’t. Somebody told me about it. I can’t even remember who told me, but they said there’s a lot of whining on it. I don’t know. But here’s what I would say to you: He and I have talked since then. It never even came up. Guys that take shots, when you shoot arrows at me, they go through bazooka holes. They barely touch skin. They may not touch skin. So, I don’t worry about all of that. The biggest thing for me, like way bigger, I’ve got a good team. I just want to play. We have to get this underway in a safe way. We’ve all got to mitigate. We’ve all got to look after what we’re doing with our kids – wait a minute – and our staff and our managers because the virus is running us. We’re not running it. How do we mitigate all of this stuff? We’ve got to play. I’m saying, if we’ve got to play on I-95, I’m good. I’m playing.”

On how much more difficult it will be to get a young team adjusted with the schedule this season …

“I’m worried about it. I said to Mitch (Barnhart) – because he’s the president or the head of the committee, the selection committee – I said, ‘Mitch, what if we go 4-5 or 3-6? Are we going to be all right before I sign off on all of this stuff? I want to know that we’ll be OK if that’s the case.’ See, I think this is a year, you’re not worried about your record as much as playing, playing well and then counting on the committee to pick the best teams. Who are they? And it’s not going to be by record because you’ve got some teams that are going to play six quote buy games. They’re playing the lightest schedule they can get. They’re trying to stay on their campus. There’s nothing wrong with that. Then you’re having us, I think it’s safer to play other Power 5s who are testing and protocols like we are, but the problem with that is you’re not going to win as many games.”

On Terrence Clarke …

“Well, he’s growing right now. His stuff is all potential. You’re talking about, I’m going to guess he’s 6-6, 6-7. He’s a guard. But what we’re finding out, he’s one of those guards that if you get him near the basket, he’s really good. Like, really good eight feet and in. And so, we’re just figuring that out. The other guy that is playing really good is BJ (Brandon Boston Jr.). So, now all of a sudden you’ve got these two big wings that are both 6-6, 6-7 that are different. BJ’s knocking down shots. He’s getting to the rim. He’s making layups. I mean, I’m really surprised. He doesn’t guard the way that he has to or the way he will if he wants to stay on the floor. Devin (Askew) and Davion (Mintz) are both different, which is great for us. They’re playing well. So, the guard play looks to be pretty solid right now. But, you know, up front we’re big. We can be 7-foot, 6-11, you know, 6-7, 6-7, or you can go with another big guy with two big guards. I mean we could be a big team. You won’t believe this, we are working on zone. Now, we’ll probably play it a possession or two for the season, but we’re working on it.”

On what makes Clarke have the potential to be special …

“Again, he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s quick. What he’s learning to do is to not mess with the ball. Like, right now, we chart lane touches. So, throughout the practice and accumulated for the year to this point, how many lane touches? By far, he has the most lane touches and that includes big guys who are catching it off passes. That’s a lane touch where they’re posted up. He’s probably got double the lane touches of anybody on the team. Now, it’s taken him time because he’s used to messing with the ball. We’re just saying, ‘Get the ball by the man and get in the lane.’ So, he’s playing in a way that he hasn’t played. So, his decisions are still coming around. Like, OK, now you’re not messing with it, you’re running downhill, you’ve got to slow your mind down. Do I have a runner? Do I have a layup? Do I have a lob? Do I have to stride stop? And that’s what we work on. What I’m trying to get them to understand is, you have a freedom inside of the principles that we’re teaching. You have a freedom inside of the skillset you have. In other words, you’re not a 3-point shooter. You’re not shooting 3s. If you’re a driver, figure out areas to drive. If you want to shoot 3s, get in the gym and start making 3s. So, we’re doing all of that, and Terrence I’m on right now based on the fact that he has a chance to really be special. But I’m saying again, Olivier is playing well. I’ll tell you the other kids that’s like surprised me is Isaiah, can do more than I thought. We have too many one-handed rebounds right now. We’re doing defensive drills, doing stuff, playing and we get a good stop and then we don’t rebound the ball or we go after a ball with one hand and now it’s tipped away. We’re doing a lot of conditioning because of stuff like that right now.”

On how the season will be affected by COVID-19 and the potential stoppages in play …

“You’d have no choice (to pause for 14 days if positive). We don’t run this; the virus runs us. Let me start by telling you we’re in a bubble. So, the bubble being our lodge, single room and their own bath, cook/chef in the building. They eat there. They walk across the parking lot in the practice facility, which there’s no one even in the offices in that building yet. So, they’re in there by themselves. Other parts of the building have some other teams, but we never cross paths. We never see each other. We’re in a bubble. I’m feeling very comfortable to the 25th of November. We’re also wearing chips that they’re doing in football, and what we’re finding out is unless you’re playing against somebody a lot, you’re not going to be in his space more than 15 minutes, six feet. As coaches, managers, we’re not near the players five minutes in a practice, three minutes in a practice. So, what we mitigated by wearing the chips, if it’s the players and they’re staying in the bubble, they should be fine. We leave the bubble to go home, managers, coaches, some of the managers are in the lodge. But when we come back, we’re not in there. We’ve got masks on and we’re not close enough to them. So, I feel good until the 25th. The 25th, I don’t know how this thing is going to play out and I will tell you, if one of our kids gets positive and is traced, we’re out 14 days. What we’re trying to do is say, if they have no symptoms in that 14-day period, we have to make conditioning available to them away from our own team. If it’s tracing, three or four, they should be able to condition. They have no symptoms. Away from our team, sanitize the building. They go back. They’re away. But they should be able to condition, not stay in a room. Here’s what no one’s taking into account: Hardened criminals are not thrown in jail to where they cannot come out of a room for 14 days. They’re just not. So, four walls for 14 days, food is delivered, knock on the door but wait 10 seconds, all right, now open the door and take your food. Come on now. Come on. So, we’ve got to figure that part of it out for all of these players. But, we’re in the same boat as any other school. We had at one point traced to a bunch of our guys, none of them ended up having it. I think we’ve gone five or six weeks for where we’ve been good, but we’re in a bubble. We should be good. On the 25th, it changes. Now, in our schedule we also have backups in case another team gets sick. So, we’ve got our schedule, which we were ahead of this because we just said, OK, play war games. If they give us this date, that date, that date, what’s our schedule look like? Let’s get it ahead of time. Then what if this team gets sick? How do we do this? So, we have some backups in case something like that happens.”

On if the backup games are just for nonconference …

“Yeah, nonconference. Obviously in conference, if someone gets sick it will be a make-up game, I guess. I don’t know. I mean, if we play in pods and you’re playing six or seven games at a time and one team’s not there, how make those games up I don’t know. I mean, we’re counting on the league office to have plan A, B, C, D and E. And maybe F.”

On who is stepping up through the tough times from a leadership standpoint and how challenging it is for the freshmen to find their role and see who they are during this time …

“It’s hard. Bruiser Flint grabbed me after like four days of practice and he looked at me and said, ‘How in the world do you do this every year? Because this is hard.’ They are learning about themselves, they’re learning about each other, we are learning about them, we coaches, and they are learning about us – what we accept, what is not acceptable, what will get a response from me, what am I looking for, how I want them to play, and then how do they play together, who is going to step up. We’re doing all kinds of drills that come down to the wire. I want to see who makes game-winning shots. But it’s all developed here. We’ve already thrown out two things that I thought would be good for the team. We were doing it offensively and I said, ‘Don’t like it. Stop. We’re not doing it.’ And they all looked at each other like, what do you mean? ‘Don’t even think that. Take that out of your mind. We’re not playing that way. Here’s some other stuff.’ And then we’re adding to it. We had a freshman come up and say, ‘Hey, can we call this that?’ I said, ‘I love it. Yes.’ And so, we’re all together trying to figure everybody out, but this is every year. This is not just this year. We’ve had times where we’ve two or three or four players return; this year is not one of those years.”

On if it’s extra challenging have a new group come in given all the unique circumstances with this season …

“Let me give you this, what’s changed. One, I haven’t traveled. So, other than go to New Jersey [where his vacation house is], I haven’t traveled. So, when you’re looking and saying, ‘Wow, he looks fresh,’ yeah. I would have been traveling four days a week, maybe five, coming back to school visits where I’m going all weekend and entertaining, having families, having practices, and then they leave and I go back on the road for three days and I’m in five cities and I’m in five homes. I’m giving our in-home recruiting. I haven’t done any of that. I’ve done some Zoom stuff. That’s what I’m doing. So, I’m fresher. I feel way better coaching. And now I’m saying we should do this all the time. Why are we doing other stuff? I feel better. And again, my belief, we’re all going to get the guys we would have got anyway. That’s what I believe. I’ve been wrong before. Eric (Lindsey)? [Lindsey says, ‘1978.’]. ’78. 1978. So, I may be wrong with that. And then with the energy that I have, our energy has been good. We haven’t had a bad practice yet. We’re going two-a-days on Saturday and Sunday and the guys have done—the second practice yesterday, which was the fourth in two days, they were good. They were good. And some of them stayed after. And so, I’m liking this. The corona has gotten us to spend more time with our team if they weren’t traced. I’ll give you an example: They gave us four hours and then they let us ramp up to eight hours, which meant I could go an hour and a half for four or five days. An hour and 20 minutes for five days to really get up in running and training. We should do it every year that way. It’s only two weeks. But every year it should go from four hours on the court to eight hours on the court in a week to now we’re at 20. We never here at Kentucky reach 20. We’re usually, early in the year because we’re doing doubles on the weekends, we may get to 17, 18 hours, but we’re never at 20 hours.”

On how has COVID-19 affected the team bonding process …

“I hate to tell Jerry (Tipton) you asked a good question, but Jerry, for the first time in my career here at Kentucky I’m going to say this: That is a good question. Very thoughtful. I don’t even want to say thoughtful; let me just say it was a good question. So, I can’t have them here right now. It’s only my wife and I at the house, but it’s my wife. So now, they being together, because we’re in a bubble, they’re OK. I wouldn’t want them coming here to maybe get something. Maybe my wife. Or them bringing something here if that’s the case. We’ve been over here one time. We watched the (NBA) playoffs outside near the pool and they ate and stuff. We were here one day. Normally on the weekends you know they’re here each day on the weekend. We’re not doing that right now. The practice facility has an unbelievable lounge and locker room. We’re not in the locker room right now. We’re not using the hot and cold tubs in the locker room. But we’re finally in the last week let them in the lounge area, but the chairs are six, seven feet away. Only 10 can go in because of the space. It’s only open so many times. But here’s what I would say: What happened in the NBA bubble, teams could go their own way and do their own thing. I’m going to golf and you’re doing this and I’m doing that. Or, teams could come together and have a breakfast with their team every morning, leave their phones in their room, let’s just do this. They could have a cornhole tournament, which one of the teams did. Or you could go your own separate ways. Or you could come together and nights and do stuff. The two best teams in the NBA were like that. The two best teams—I should say the two last teams standing. And my thing to my team is, through all this, every team is going through this, how do we become the best as players and staff at handling this? So, we’re the best at handling this environment. One, we’re in a bubble. Most teams are not. Their team is in apartments. There are different places around, which means it’s a little harder to keep track because a kid does this, he has someone in his room, he doesn’t know the person, that person gives it to him and his roommates, they trace back and you’ve got 12 guys out. We’re hoping we can mitigate that by how we are, and now all I’m talking about is it can’t be small groups. Those are the sneakies. They want to go do their thing with two or three guys because they can go and no one will tell. Ain’t no sneakies now. We’ve all gotta be in this together. We’re all affecting each other’s lives. Let’s do this. A little bit harder, but we are working to be the absolute best with dealing with this environment.”