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John Calipari previews Ole Miss Rebels, praises Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Calipari got his players to start becoming more like Shai, and they started winning.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats will have their final game in Rupp Arena this Wednesday when the Ole Miss Rebels come to town.

Ahead of the game, John Calipari met with the media to preview the home finale, as well as gives us the scoop on what’s made his team so much better during their recent hot streak.

While a variety of things have helped play into UK’s three-game winning streak, having his players be more like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander helped get them back on track.

“As his game kept elevating, that’s when I had a meeting with the team and asked, ‘So who’s our best player?’ Shai. ‘Really? So let’s talk about how he’s gotten to this point.’ And I went through it, including the weight room.”

It’s safe to say being like Shai has helped make this UK team a force to be reckoned with heading into March.

Here is a recap of everything Calipari said Tuesday, courtesy of UK Athletics:

On why and how this team resembles some from his UMass coaching days …

“Well, the UMass teams we played fast when you let us play fast. If you stretched the court we were going to score 90. Learning this as a young coach, when you played Temple, if you tried to play fast you would lose. So, you had to play the way they designed the game and then you had a chance to win. Then we started beating them. This team, because of its length, should be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. To be that, you can’t stretch out all over the court because they can’t get to the rim.

“So you have to have more of an offense that’s designed to every shot that goes up there’s going to be two or three guys on the backboard, and that’s basically what we did. We got away from some of the stuff we were doing and we put in some new stuff. (We) explained to the guys why we were doing it. They want to win. The thing that they did not understand and hear is, if you don’t do this together you’re not going to have any fun. If you’re not going to do it together you cannot win against teams that are going to play like teams.

“Then when you’re losing it’s no fun. And then when you’re not enjoying playing with each other you’re really miserable. The biggest thing, too, on the flipside is this team now is beginning to enjoy defense. And if you enjoy defense and you’re playing together, you basically can’t wait for the next game to come up. I’m happy with their progress and what they’re doing.”

On how much of a challenge it is to get guys to play the right way …

“Well, here’s what happens: Less of that in that it’s I have to do something fabulous. I’m missing shots. I’m not playing well, so this play I’ve gotta make this show time. I’ve gotta make this Hollywood, which leads to another turnover, a missed shot or a charge. ‘Now I’ve really got to. Watch this.’ Spin in the air. ‘Uh-oh, you almost blew out your ankle.’ What are you doing? When you’re not playing well, you scale back. These kids don’t know it because they’ve never had to do that before. The second thing is every one of these kids shot 25 times a game in high school.

“So, if you miss your first 10 you’re OK. Let’s see if I can make my next seven out of 10. Now, I’m seven for 20. I had a good game. Dude, you missed 10 in a row. In a normal game, you’re not getting 10 more shots. So they had to learn that. Basically, you miss a couple, you’ve gotta have a mentality that you’re going to make the next couple of shots. Not change how you’re going to play. ‘Why didn’t you shoot that?’ ‘Well, I saw it.’ ‘No. No. Why didn’t you shoot that?’ I just told them yesterday, when you go back and tell your friends, ‘He’s all over me.’ And when they say, ‘Why is he all over you?’ And you say, ‘Because he’s telling me to shoot it.

“Why aren’t you shooting? Shoot the ball.’ ‘That’s not what he’s saying. What’s he saying?’ ‘No. He’s telling me to shoot.’ Do they laugh at you when you tell them? What do they do when you tell them that stuff? (I’m) kind of making it a point with Wenyen (Gabriel) and some of the other guys. I’m on you to shoot the ball. I’m not on you. ‘Quade (Green), I’m on you to shoot the ball. Quit doing all of the other. Just shoot the ball.’ All that with young kids, they revert what they know best which they’ve done for the last eight years. They come here – what got you here isn’t going to get us or you there. And they’ve gotta change a little bit.

“But, you know, they’ve done it. I’m not fighting guys every day. I’m enjoying walking into practice. I can shorten practice now. They’re not fighting me. ‘What do you want me to do?’ Every once in a while a guy will revert, and I’ll say, ‘Don’t do that. You’re playing too well. Don’t do that. Don’t go back to where you were.’ ”

On Shai Gilgeous-Alexander coming in the gym to get shots up at 7 a.m. every day, when it started, and if anybody else started to do that as well …

“It wasn’t us (coaches) telling anybody. I just knew he was doing it. As his game kept elevating, that’s when I had a meeting with the team and asked, ‘So who’s our best player?’ Shai. ‘Really? So let’s talk about how he’s gotten to this point.’ And I went through it, including the weight room. You want to ask Rob (Harris) who’s the best in the weight room, he’s going to tell you Shai.”

On when he said that to the team …

“Probably after maybe Auburn, something like that. I just grabbed (Gilgeous-Alexander) and said (to the team), ‘If you want to know why he’s changed and why he’s elevated his game, this is why. He doesn’t miss a class, isn’t late for a tutor.’ I’ve never met a player undisciplined off the court that is disciplined on the court. It just doesn’t work that way. If you’re undisciplined, there’s a point in the game where you’ll just break down because you’re going to do what you feel like doing not a habit of doing what you’re supposed to do and being where you’re supposed to be. We had a couple of those and guys are trying to clean that up a little bit.”

On if everyone started coming in at 7 a.m. after he talked to the team …

“No, because some of the guys would come in at night. They would maybe have an earlier class than (Gilgeous-Alexander) had and they would come in at night, which is fine. The whole point of it was: Are you making time to change what you don’t like or are you making excuses or are you being enabled? It’s always going to be someone else. I told the story – you got a 100-man marching band. They’re in unison, it’s unbelievable. Ninety-nine turn right, your child turns left, and you ask the question, ‘What is wrong with those 99?’ Are you being enabled?

“The greatest thing – and I haven’t watched any of these (Facebook) All-Access stuff that they’re doing, I haven’t watched them yet – but everybody’s telling me, ‘You’re getting a real good taste of what these kids are about.’ I have great kids who come from good homes. I’m just telling you, these kids, they’re trying. This is hard. They had to get smacked around a little bit. They had to get knocked down, and now they’re dealing with it. Now we have a tough one. We have a game coming up that it’s not the game, it’s us. (Mississippi) is good enough to beat us. They beat Missouri at Missouri. They had Tennessee – they lost by eight – and now they are coming here and a chance to play in Rupp. I know they are good enough to beat us.

“I’m worried about where are we. Have we learned or will we revert? Now, if you think there is no chance that we will not revert, you’re crazy. You’re crazy. There’s a chance that we could revert. Let’s hope these guys learned a lesson and they didn’t like how that felt and they are going to come out and play. I don’t even know if that is good enough to win, but you know what, I can deal with where we are as a team right now because we are getting better and they are about each other.”

On if anyone enables his son …

“With Brad (Calipari)? You should be in practice; he doesn’t get enabled. He still mumbles under his breath. I said, ‘Say one more word and you’ll be out of here. Your mom ain’t here to protect you, son. You’re in here with me now.’ Now, I get that she kissed me after he made his 3. And the first thing she kissed me before her lips moved from mine she said, ’Why only one minute?’ That’s what I deal with. I always said I wouldn’t recruit a player whose mother wears their son’s jersey. It’s my wife.

“I’ll tell you what, she’s a great mother. These kids when they call me, my daughters (will say), ‘Where’s mom?’ ‘Hello? It’s your dad. How are you?’ ‘Where’s mom?’ He (Brad Calipari) comes over to the house. ‘Was Brad here? Where’d he go?’ ‘Well, he dropped his stuff off. He and I talked for a bit. He just left. ‘Maybe he should come say hello.’ ‘Well he sees you all the time.’ ”

On the NCAA being open to changing the agent rule …

“Yeah, it needs something there, and I say that we need to work with the (NBA) Players’ Association who oversee the agents and need to figure out what do they think the solution is. I think baseball and hockey is a little bit different than what we deal with. But, you know, these kids deserve advisers as they are moving through this process, but the way it’s done right now, you know, it’s an issue. So there is a lot of things that I think, at the end of the day, things will begin to change.

“The problem with the NCAA is it’s slow moving. This one doesn’t need to be slow moving. This needs to be – its not going to be perfect for every program. The issue you have when you have all these teams: What’s right for these 50 might not be right for these 200. And guess who votes? Who gets a vote? So, it’s what we have. It’s the structure that we have. And I know we have the power five (conferences) and they try to do their stuff, but you know, I’m counting on that they’ll come to their senses.

“I think these kids should be able to use their likeness, make money from their signatures. It’s their name and likeness. It’s not ours; it’s theirs. They should be able to make money. Maybe the school manages it. Maybe the money goes to their parents for travel. Eliminates all that. Maybe there’s a limit on what they can do and the rest they get when they leave here. It’s all stuff that can be done easily. You see all the Olympians, there’s stuff that can be done that we just can’t say, ‘Well, we don’t do it that way.’ “

On if proposed NCAA rules changes would affect some of the recent reports …

“You can’t legislate morality. You can’t, but I am in the homes of the kids that we’re talking about and they want their own dignity. They don’t want to be beholden to anybody. I mean, you think of your own family. Growing up, your parents, there’s pride. Even if there’s nothing here, this is still ours. So these kids and their families, they want dignity and they want to do it themselves. I come back to the Players Association should loan these kids money. Let them take a loan. Let their family get a loan from the Players Association.

“What’s the problem? For travel to games and the NCAA Tournaments, and do it and everything’s – it’s out. Why? ‘Well, the kid at this school can’t get it,’ Well, guess what? This isn’t communism. You can’t get a home loan. Guess what? You can’t get it. I don’t know what to tell you. ‘I demand it because he got a home loan.’ ‘I’m sorry that’s not how it works in our country.’

“So kids that have pro potential and want to take a loan so that their families don’t have to deal with it. Why can’t you? But I have been saying all this for how long, Jerry (Tipton)? I know you’ve calculated. Six years, maybe? Six years and three weeks. All that I’ve just said I’ve said. Again, this game is a special game. When you think of what this team is going through, what they’re now doing, and now as young men what they just experienced, you’re going to even question college basketball? What it does, and how it is, and all this is for these kids. And again, I think you know I make it about these kids. I do. It’s their experience, not mine. It tired me out this year.

“You see I’m getting my second wind. You watch me, I’m whistling and skipping in there now. But it’s not – I was dragging about three weeks ago. But again, I think for all of us, if we stay focused on how this affects these young people, we won’t make mistakes. When we’re worried about a bureaucracy and keeping the bureaucracy going, you’re always going to make mistakes.”