HOOVER, Ala. — There is no mystery with John Calipari. If you want to know what the man thinks, just ask him.
“The biggest challenge is we’re not a very good team right now,” the Kentucky coach said the moment he arrived at Thursday’s SEC Basketball Media Day. “We don’t defend very well as a team or as individual players. We don’t rebound like we should with the size that we have. We don’t have leadership yet, because we’re all trying to figure out how we play and what our roles are going to be. And offensively we don’t execute and don’t shoot as well as we need to. Other than that, I think we’ll be fine.”
If you think you’ve heard this sort of thing from Calipari before, you would be right. He is notoriously harsh on his teams early in the year, often calling out individual players. Remember his critiques of the players who went on to win a championship last year?
Marquis Teague had to step up and get better. Doron Lamb had to show more leadership. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was “young, very young.”
Those critiques are not designed to lull other teams into a false sense of security, nor is Cal using the media to embarrass or motivate his team. He was asked a question, and he answered it. What he says at any given time is how he feels at that moment.
So you can bet that Wednesday’s scrimmage in Lexington and the defensive practice Thursday morning before he boarded the plane for Birmingham didn’t go as Cal had hoped.
“Leadership develops,” he said. “We replaced 90 percent of our team, so guys are still trying to figure out who they are and what they can do. They don’t know each other; they don’t talk to each other; they’re way behind. We’re way behind where we should be.”
Forget that Kentucky is ranked third in the country in most preseason polls, behind Indiana and Louisville. Forget that Cal has taken teams to the Elite Eight, the Final Four and the national championship in the past three seasons. Forget that he has a couple of freshmen who are 6-foot-10 and 7-foot with athleticism to burn, and another freshman, Archie Goodwin from Little Rock, who was one of the most sought-after guards in the country.
Forget it all. They aren’t very good at this moment, and that is all Cal wants to say.
“They don’t break down and play defense the way we do,” he said. “We’re not going to guard you all the way up the court and we’re not going to try to steal every ball. And guys like Archie aren’t accustomed to breaking down and staying in position for an entire possession. So he’s got a lot to learn, a long way to go.”
But tomorrow, they might be better. And the day after that, they likely will be better still.
And next week, given Cal’s relentless obsession with details and up-tempo drills, they will be even better. Until finally, perhaps sometime in November or December, maybe January, but certainly by February, he will answer the question differently.
He might then acknowledge that his team is, in fact, pretty good.
But that time is not now. Now Cal is what he has always been: the relentless, preseason taskmaster, Adolph Rupp for hard-asses, the guy who holds up your every deficiency and shouts to the world, “Behold, an underachiever!”
“We are a very ‘October’ team right now,” he said. “Mediocre for October.”
Word will filter back to Lexington. The wheels of his plane won’t touch the ground before chat boards will light up with angst over the plight of the Wildcats.
That is exactly how he wants it.
Because while he isn’t lying — this Kentucky basketball team probably isn’t that good by Calipari standards — his standards are in a league of their own.
The Wildcats will work harder tomorrow than they did today, if for no other reason than to get their coach off their back. They might not be “Calipari good” by the time they tip off against Maryland on Nov. 9, but they will be much better than they are today.
And in the rest of the basketball world, that is usually considered very good indeed.