clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

John Calipari and Wildcats preview Louisville

How bad do you want it?

State Farm Champions Classic Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

With Christmas on the horizon, the Kentucky Wildcats are preparing for their annual rivalry showdown with the Louisville Cardinals.

On Thursday, head coach John Calipari, senior guard Davion Mintz and freshman forward Lance Ware met with the media to preview Saturday’s big game. Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

Opening statement …

“Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone. This is the first time that my family – my daughter reminded me – this is the first Christmas that we, as a family, have not been together. And so, I’m having some of the players come to the house. They don’t even know yet. I think I’m going to make them stay over. They don’t have family in town. Not for them but for my wife and I. They don’t even know it yet. These times, I’m just telling you, I feel for you if you’re going to be by yourself and you can’t be with family. But it is what it is. It’s just so uncertain what it is that we all have to continue to protect each other.”

On his first UMass and first Memphis teams experiencing a similar stumble out of the gate and how those teams responded …

“But again, schedule sometimes dictates what you’re saying. Like, I would have to look at the schedule and say, ‘But yeah, we had a game or two that got us going and we got on a roll.’ But, I just kept coaching and kept demanding. With this team, let me just say the thing that was hard that I regret that I could not do, the team-building stuff. But I’m doing it now. We’re doing all kind of team-building things. Anything I can do that brings them together and we’re about team. Some of the stuff is funny. I may even have Eric (Lindsey) put some of it out. If you watched it, you would say, ‘That is hysterical.’ Team building. They’ve got to do something together with one another and we’ve got to do it in unison. The other part of bringing them together, that piece of it, when you’re only on the court two or three hours a day with somebody and the rest of the time you’re not creating relationships, this is extremely hard with new teams. So, I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to do a better job of getting them to understand how to finish games. Four minutes to go, we looked panicked. Well, that’s on me. ‘Your team doesn’t look like they know what they’re doing in the last four minutes of the game. Everybody is trying to get theirs. They panic and now they miss open shots. They miss free throws. And now you have a chance to win every one of those games.’ That’s on me to really try to figure this out. But, you know, at the end of the day, I believe we’ll start shooting the ball better. You guys have been following me for years. You know I say it every year. ‘You come in and your team stinks. They can’t shoot.’ And all of a sudden by the end of the year we’re making the shots we need to make, making the free throws we need to make. This has just been unrelenting because the competition hasn’t given us a chance to just play OK and win a game and start believing. So now, we’ve got to go. One of the things I’m doing is, I just told them, ‘I’m going to have fun with this. I’m going to enjoy myself.’ We named three guys to be leaders, to do away with all the non-negotiables, attitudes, how you accept coaching. I’m not dealing with any of that now. The players are going to deal. So that’s off my plate. Trying to get them to be more in control of how we’re playing offensively and less of it me. The main thing you’re hearing me say right now is, ‘Go! Go! Speed! Speed!’ Because we’re trying to get some easy baskets. Even that, if they don’t understand it, then I’ve got to prod them into flying, we’re not going to be where we want to be at the end of the year. So I kind of threw a lot of stuff at you guys. We’re doing, I’m trying, tweaking. We still got a player injured. I’m not going to tell you. I’m hoping he can practice some today. When you have that, it takes away even more. But, we’re not the only one. There are no excuses here. We’ve got to figure out how to play the last four minutes in these kinds of games.”

On if the team building diminishes the outside reaction of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry because he’s focused on his team …

“I think there still is. That’s why ESPN moved the game. They moved it from (ESPN)2 to ESPN because people are going to want to see the rivalry of the game. We know they’re going to come in and fight. They do a great job. They’ve got big guys. They’ve got guards. They’re playing pack line. They’re playing through (Carlik) Jones. (David) Johnson is playing well. They’re rebounding the ball well. They fight. They absolutely try to take 15 charges a game. We’re avoiding charges right now. It’s all stuff we’ve been working on but there’s not been carryover into games. Theirs has. Now, they’ve got a young team too. They’ve got inexperience like we do. So, they’ve played better than we have. No question about it. They’ve been more specific in how they’re playing, mostly through Jones and putting him in pick-and-rolls and doing stuff with him. But everybody on that team has accepted their role. We’re still trying to figure out who is who right now.”

On if something changed this offseason to bring some “spice” back into the rivalry …

“It’s the Louisville game. Whether it’s Rick (Pitino) or Chris (Mack), it doesn’t matter. And by the way, I offered to postpone the game if they wanted to, and for some reason they told me, ‘No, they’re good, they’ll go.’ I said, ‘But you’re not going to have fans. Do you still really want to play this.’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah, we want to go.’ So, I guess we’re OK now.”

On what’s been the most surprising thing to him about the start after being positive about this team early …

“Every year though, —sometimes I’m just one of those, I get optimistic. I really like the players personally. Like, I like these players. So, it’s more me looking at them and thinking we’re this and then it comes down. If you remember when we had Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) and Kevin Knox and that group and it took us a while – whew! – to figure out how are we going to play with this team. The difference is we had some games we could win. We could do some stuff. Kind of came together when we went to West Virginia and played through two guys. And then we knew, OK, this is how we’re going to do this. Trying to get to that point with this team. I still have great faith. The biggest thing, I want to have fun coaching. Now, what brings about frustration? For a coach and a staff, what would you tell me? You can’t be having fun if you’re frustrated. What would you say? Most of you really don’t know, but what would you say? [Reporter: Lack of effort]. That would be frustrating but that’s not been a problem for us. But go ahead, what else? [Reporter: Attitude]. Perfect. Coming in and out of games. How you’re being coached. How you’re responding to coaching. What else? [Reporter: Ignoring the game plan]. Yeah. Like, we just worked three days on something and you’re doing what you want to. How about selfish play and it leads to a bad shot? But you could have made an extra (pass). It’s like we’re really working on certain things and then you go in and do (what you want to do). That’s all frustrating. So, part of it is what we’re trying to do is say, non-negotiables are on you as a team and it’s on you three to deal with. I’m done with it. And I think the guys understand what we’re trying to do. We brought in, we had a sports psychologist come in and be available to the guys. Kind of mind coach so that they had a chance in the off days if they chose to grab him and spend time with him. A lot of this becomes, is your mentality that you’re a 1-5 team? That’s not my mentality. Now, the record says we’re 1-5 and we’re not very good. If you watched for 20, 30 minutes of these games, you watch and say, ‘How do you get that to 40 minutes? How do you eliminate unforced errors?’ That’s what my job is because they don’t have the answers to that. That’s got to be making things clearer. Clarity. When you struggle, clarity. When you struggle – ready? – don’t worry about talent, skill. What can we deal with? Attitude. One, we’re going to be the greatest attitude. We’re listening. If I’m in. If I’m out. How about game planning? How about effort and let’s dive on the floor and let’s take charges like Louisville? Louisville is trying to take 20 charges a game. They’re just flying around, throwing bodies, falling down. Well, that brings energy. And then for us, we just got to continue plugging away at what it is offensively, because if you go stop a team 10 straight times and you’re not getting any reward from it. But, if you get a reward, it starts picking you up and picking you up and you develop a swagger. So, we’ve got to figure out some things there. But I said it, I haven’t lost any faith in this team. I’m not—I don’t listen or read anything you guys or anybody else is saying. It doesn’t help. Whether you tell me I’m the greatest or now I’m the worst. That doesn’t have any effect on me other than how do I do this to make sure these kids understand, ‘I’m with you. This isn’t easy. People are seeing blood in the water and you’re at Kentucky. This is their chance.’ And I’m not talking specifically about Louisville. I’m talking about every team in our league. ‘This is our chance to smash these dudes.’ And so, they’ve got to understand these teams are coming. We’re not going to face a team that doesn’t play hard or plays poorly. They’re not going to. I don’t expect that Saturday. I expect Louisville to play well. I expect it. What I’m hoping is we play better. And if we’re playing better and we see it and we compete, we’ll live with the results. I’m feeling like, again, there are things I’ve got to do to help these guys get over the hump, and I’m doing everything I can right now.”

On being more direct with Cam’Ron Fletcher’s suspension?

“So what does that mean to you, John (Huang), when I’m not publicly – which I normally don’t publicly? We normally deal with it in house because I don’t want to hurt any kid. But when you have to send somebody home, that’s a different deal. Now all of a sudden, that’s going to be public, and you’re going to see in warm-up, ‘Where’s Cam? Where’s Cam?’ And then all of a sudden, John, ‘He’s not! Where?’ I had to address it. The second thing I didn’t want to address or having someone else address it not knowing exactly what it was. ‘Why isn’t he here?’ Here’s what it is. Just like I’ve always been, transparent. Here’s why. Here’s what must change for him to rejoin the team. He called me last night. He tried to reach me during the day. I was in practice. He called me after. I called him back and we had a great conversation. His high school coach called. His mother called. Everybody is onboard and they know. They know this is the best thing for Cam. What I heard last night was, ‘I get it. I understand and I can promise you X, Y, Z.’ That was from him. My thing was, I’m going to meet with you, your coach and your mom and make sure everyone understands these are the expectations. This is what they are. I thought I made that clear in the recruiting process but maybe I didn’t. But here are these—this is it. And also, again, guys screw up, but some guys—I’ll just give you an example. Davion (Mintz) did something in a practice that was (wrong). And I told the team after, ‘Why did I not go crazy about that? Because if it came from you or you, I probably would have gone nuts. But it came from Davion. Because he has money in the bank. He hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t said anything. This kid has been perfect and he has a step-out-of-himself moment.’ It’s different. These kids. My job is about these kids. Not just what we’re trying to do. Cam’s case was totally different than anybody else on here. Again, what if a kid says, ‘Well, what about him? What about him?’ You don’t need to be here then. Don’t worry about him. Don’t judge your behavior vs. someone else’s bad behavior. This is all accumulative, and with him, it was not one thing. And he knows it. It wasn’t one thing. It was, I’m asking you to change. I walked 25 steps with you. If you don’t change, I’ve got to let you go. And now, in this case, he’ll be back – unless we have a call and it’s not what we think. But I believe he’ll be back. You’ve got everybody around him thanking me. You’ve got everybody around him thanking me. And so, again, why I did it the way I did it, I just told you. But I think he’ll be better for this. And now we understand there are certain non-negotiables here. You just can’t be this way. You can’t act this way. This is hard. There’s emotion in this. Players play, coaches coach.”

On if the rivalry comes at an opportune time to build some momentum for the players …

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. When you have most of the kids not from the state of Kentucky, it’s like the game to end all games. It really isn’t. It’s not a league game. But it’s because we’re so close. That creates that rivalry with us. I’m not looking at it like, OK, this is the game we have to win. I don’t coach any game that way. This a game we’ve got to start playing better. This is a game we’ve got to finish the last four minutes like we have been coached. And again, most of this comes back to me. I’m not trying to make it about me; I’m trying to tell you, I’m the coach. If there’s a behavior that’s not acceptable then it’s something they think I will accept. That comes back to me too. If they’re playing a certain way – selfishly – then that comes back to me too. If they’re not finishing games the way they’re supposed to be finishing games, that comes back to me too. Now, if they’re not playing with energy, if they’re not fighting, if they’re not doing that, some of that, as coach, you can’t really. If you truly want to play this game, those are things you have to do. Game planning. You just got to get better. Here’s what happened, whether it was Notre Dame, North Carolina, whoever it is. When we break down, one guy – see, it takes five, it takes a team – one guy breaks down, the other teams are too good. They’re making us pay. You know why, they’ve got veteran players. You break down, they’re not missing that play. And that’s what’s happened to us over and over and over. We continue to preach on it and talk about it. But I come back to this: I want to have fun. I’m not—look if you think I’m happy about this record, you’re crazy. You know me well enough. But I’m not going to let it change how I approach this because this is about what I can do for these young people. And the only way I can do the job that I do every year is have a ball with it. And I always have fun coaching. Because if I’m not having fun, how am I going to do my job for these kids. So, I told them that. ‘I want to have fun. Some of this stuff that frustrates coaches, it’s your job to eliminate it so I can have fun and coach that way, which is how you want me to coach.’ ”

On who the three team leaders are and why did he pick those three players …

“Well, I’ll let it play out and let it play how it does. You have to have older guys. You had to have guys who have the experience of this and so it kind of gives you a hint. The whole point of this is we need some guys, forget about leading, just worry about playing better, worry about being more engaged with our team. But these three, and the reason I did three? I want them to back each other and basically run this team. When did my team last year become empowered, where it was their team? Because that’s what I’m trying to do every year. So, when did that team become empowered? Anybody watch the season with us? Larry, you always have answers to everything. Now you’re growing a beard and I think it’s gotten to your brain. But when did we become an empowered team? [Larry Vaught: I would say it was about midway through the season.] There was a game. Something happened in a game. I’ll give you hints, guys. Go ahead, Darrell. [Darrell Bird: Arkansas] Yeah, I got thrown out of the game and Ashton (Hagans) puts his arm around me and says, ‘Ok. Coach, we’ve got this. Coach, I’m telling you just go. We got this.’ And I walked off the floor and we outscore them by 20 points in 10 minutes. At that point, we became empowered. That team had a chance to win the national title. We lost two games in Vegas. We lost to Evansville. We should have lost to Utah Valley. They become empowered. I’m trying to do that. It may take more time. I’ve had teams not get it until February. I’m not stopping. I’m not budging. I’m not cracking. Biggest thing for me is, I want to have fun doing this. That’s the secret sauce in what we do. Yeah, I’m aggressive and I hold them accountable at a high standard, but I’m having a ball and I think they can feel that. And right now, there’s been a frustration level because of things that normally are non-negotiable in this program.”

Davion Mintz

On the pandemic making team bonding more challenging than in normal years …

“Yeah, but the benefit we have is that we live together in the lodge. Being at Kentucky, they’ve taken the safety measures to make sure we’re all healthy and that we test regularly. We’re able to kind of hang out in each other’s rooms. Whereas my old place, and most college places that I know of, the main guys, you know, you aren’t living together. So, that’s been good for us and we’re just trying to do as much as we can in that aspect right now.”

On how he is personally handling the frustrating start to the season …

“I mean, I’m fine. I still understand that it’s really early. Every season I’ve played in, things didn’t always start off beautiful. There’s always going to be some form of struggle. But, that’s the best part about it – how you fight back, how you answer to adversity. It’s very frustrating. I’m a heavy, huge competitor. I know that guys around here are huge competitors. I see a lot of the guys’ faces after a loss and I mean, it hurts. It sucks. But it’s still very early and we’re still figuring it out.”

On his relationship with Louisville’s Jae’lyn Withers …

“I think he was a freshman when I was a senior in high school. He was a very quiet kid back then. We didn’t really speak as much, but he’s a super cool guy. Happy that we can compete still at this level years later.”

On John Calipari picking three older players as the team’s leaders and what that role is …

“Yeah, Coach pulled a couple of guys in the office and he talked about taking the stress off of him and having to deal with the non-negotiables that should be the responsibility of the guys that he selected. Everyone is on board with it. Everyone is agreeing with it and jumping on board. That’s what it is.”

On if Kentucky’s struggles to get going takes away from a rivalry game …

“I don’t really want to drag it out. We’re still super focused on what we have right now and we’re still just rolling. We understand the magnitude of this game. We know what we’re representing. This is our chance. This is our time. Like Coach mentioned, we’re going to get the best from everybody, and especially from a team that really wants to play us. We’re super-locked in and focused on Saturday.”

On the emotions in the locker room following the North Carolina loss and how is it going to play out going forward …

“We have a great coaching staff and a great support system to help monitor things like that. I don’t think it’s going to tear us apart at all. I mean, I still think we’re a huge family, a huge group. Coach has brought a guy in who spoke with us and helped kind of relax everybody, see where our heads are at, and kind of come together after individual meetings with him to figure things out. We’re taking the correct step. Like I said, after a loss like that, who wouldn’t be upset? I mean, there’s super-high emotions. This is a big deal. I mean, this is our lives. When things are going rough, you’re always going to be upset. I’m sure all of you guys that are asking me questions are upset when things aren’t going your way. I just love this team. I love where I see things going. I love the attitudes right now. It’s just special to see right now even when things aren’t the best right now. We’re still working together and trying.”

On what the team’s non-negotiables are …

“Controlling your attitude. Controlling, you know, ‘Can I make this play for someone else?’ He said something like, ‘Not thinking less of yourself in terms of who you are as a person, but at the same time thinking less of yourself when in terms it’s time to help someone else.’ A lot of those things are non-negotiables. Like when he’s talking or when he’s trying to teach us, he’s been here before. Thirty years. His résumé speaks for itself. It’s time to listen. Those things right there are non-negotiable.”

On if he understands why the fanbase believes the sky is falling …

“Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too. Thank you. Yeah, I can understand that. I mean, for them they’re used to winning and we are too. I’m here to say that the sky is not falling. It’s still blue and it’s all right. Like I said, we’re going to figure this thing out. We signed up for this. We understand what we’re doing. We’re playing in the public’s eye, so there’s always going to be opinions when what you do is public. Hopefully we’ll still get support from you guys, but if we don’t, we have each other.”

On if the team has begun to feel desperate …

“No. I mean, right now, there are top-25 teams who have lost two games. If you ask me, there’s not that big of a difference at this point in the season between two and five, as in five is our number. We have time to pick it up and we have the correct staff and everyone around us to do that.” ‘

Lance Ware

On if this is a must-win game …

“Obviously, every game that we go out there we want to win. But we just want to continue getting better and stay on the same path. Continue to work and just get better every day in practice. Hopefully stuff that we’ve been working on in practice translates over into the games.”

On Coach Cal saying they moved the game from ESPN2 to ESPN with a bigger audience because people want to see UK fail …

“Just personally, as I know this team, I know that we’re all very competitive and that we all want to win so much. I think that we’re just going to go out there and give it our all and just leave everything on the court and continue to get better. That’s all we can really do, just continue to get better.”

On what was working for him against North Carolina …

“Honestly, just playing harder than the guys that were guarding me and I was guarding. I just wanted the ball more, and I know that that’s the type of things that I need to do in order to help this team win when I’m in the game. So, whether that be five minutes or 15 minutes, I’m just going to go out there and play my hardest and try and get some offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds and just do what I have to do.”

On what his mentor Pervis Ellison has told him about the rivalry …

“I haven’t talked to him yet. I’m pretty sure I’m probably going to talk to him tonight. So, I’ll see about it tonight.”

On if playing with energy is how he can impact this team the most …

“Yeah, definitely. I’m always going to bring energy. Early-morning practice, late-night practice, early game, late game, I’m always going to try and be the same to help my team get going. Sometimes that’ll be me talking to them, getting them hyped up, or them just watching me go out there and do what I have to do and feed off of me. That’s what I kind of like to do and I take pride in that.”

On the struggles the pandemic has caused in him getting to know his teammates …

“I mean, in the beginning we really didn’t hang out with each other at all. But now that this season is underway and we’ve been testing and we’ve been staying in this little mini-bubble we have at the lodge, we’ve been able to hang out a little bit more and a little bit more often. Honestly, we’re still trying, we’re still creating team chemistry. That’s just something that’s going to keep on coming and only get better. We’re trying to spend as much time as possible together.”

On his reaction to Cam’Ron Fletcher’s suspension …

“I mean, as a team we all love Cam and we have talked to him. Cam brings great energy and he’s a great kid. I love Cam. But with the whole thing, that’s like him and Coach. Coach has been doing this for a long time and I don’t question anything about his judgment.”

On if he approaches the game with Louisville as a rivalry game or is just another game …

“I mean, I know that we’re playing Louisville. I know that it’s a rivalry. But like I said earlier, this is us against ourselves. We have to continue to get better and just work on our game, fix some of the mistakes that we’ve been making in past games and just try to clean up everything. But, obviously, we all know that we’re playing Louisville and it’s going to be a great game.”

On the team’s new leadership structure with three older players …

“We know who those three are in the locker room and that’s where it’s going to kind of stay. But they’re going to handle all of the little stuff, like the attitudes, I mean, that most people have. Especially when you come to Kentucky, you get around other great players, you have to kind of learn what you can and can’t do. Not everything is acceptable that you can do in high school. I know in high school, I’ve done a few things that I would never do here. So, just stuff like that, just trying to keep everybody in check and in line just so we don’t have any little problems that we could easily avoid.”

On if he stays in touch with his old coach Rick Brunson and representing his hometown …

“I probably talk to Rick about two times a week maybe, but I always keep in contact with Dajuan Wagner, like weekly check-ins. Just gives me advice because obviously he played for Cal back in Memphis. He asks me if Cal still does the same things and we’ll just laugh and joke. He’ll give me advice. But, I talk to Rick probably after every game.”