Calipari looks to mold young team into title contender
Birmingham, Ala. — When waiting for John Calipari, do not look down.
Standing united in a wood-paneled, beige-wallpapered miniature ballroom just inside a Westin Hotel's confines, a collective media eye watched twin dual doors with exit signs above them, all waiting on an entrance.
Some flipped absentmindedly through their phones, others chatted with colleagues. Everyone watched for Calipari, the SEC's pied piper who some refer to as "The Pope" at events like these, to hear just how good his next crop of high school superstars can be and if that ever-elusive undefeated season is finally within reach.
When Calipari finally appears — he is the most in-demand human being in Birmingham on this day, as far as those at the Westin can tell — he is flanked by his supporting staff and there is jostling around a stage far too small for his persona. This is why looking down can be disingenuous when waiting for Calipari: all spots are up for grabs near the microphone and everybody wants a piece of the viewing pie.
Calipari's fellow SEC coaches have been dropping his name and/or his players' names for the past six hours by the time he reaches the stage — there's good-natured jealousy, approval and outright displays of respect. But now, Calipari gets to give his take on his team and his conference and his sport, and everyone is listening.
The first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris happened just seven months ago, but by now it seems like a fluke — with eventual top-five NBA Draft pick Nerlens Noel injured and just seven scholarship players (a problem by recruiting design, though it may be), that Kentucky team has given way to another, more talented crop. And everyone is talking about it.
"I'm just jealous. That's all I think," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of the collection of raw basketball talent. "They get it done that way. Our deal is different, obviously. Our program is not going to be constructed that way. Not because I wouldn't if I could, because I would."
Added Georgia coach Mark Fox: "Cal has to put one of them on the bench. Isn't that tough?"
When the revolving door of elite young talent starts spinning in Lexington, the rest of the country can not help but stare — even the league's own coaches, however briefly. Calipari reeled in six McDonald's All-Americans (Julius Randle, brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee) and eight players overall including Kentucky Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins and in-state talent Derek Willis. Add those names to a returning group that includes sophomore standouts Alex Poythress and Willie Caulie-Stein and it's no wonder the Wildcats accumulated four times as many first-place votes among SEC media members to claim the league title.
Calipari even pointed out that 40 NBA scouts have come through campus in the span of a few days just to get a glimpse at practice.
"We got a talented group of young kids that wanted to be there together," said Calipari, who boasts a career 526-162 record. "One of scouts said, ‘How do you get them to buy in?’ Because you can see they’re buying in already. Well, part of it is they know each other, they like each other and they wanted to play together. The other part of it is they trusted that we as a staff and me as a head coach — I got your back. So whatever I’m doing with you, you can trust that it’s about you. It’s not about me. It’s not even about the program. It’s about you. You worry about each other, and I’ll worry about you.”
And to think: Kentucky was a finalist in the Andrew Wiggins Sweepstakes — the nation's unanimous No. 1 player in the '13 class who most recently shared a Sports Illustrated cover with past Kansas greats Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning — which likely would have placed the Wildcats as the overwhelming favorites not only to win the national title, but to do so without suffering a loss.
As it stands, with Wiggins in Lawrence, Kentucky is expected to be one of the top five teams in the country when the AP Poll is released. Same old song.
“The other option is to go in with no expectations," Calipari said. "I’m not sure I want that."
When asked about the El Dorado-esque 40-0 season, the one Calipari has openly discussed as a career goal in the past, he did not flinch. Though he was not going to state that this very team will be the group to bring that coaching pipe dream to life — the thought that began with his 1995-96 UMass team when it was setting team goals and forward Tyrone Weeks piped in to ask, "Why don't we try to win every game?"; the team went on to lose just two of its 37 games that season — but with this talent, he does not deny that it's a possibility.
Calipari claims to not know how good of a defensive or rebounding team he has (they have not practiced such things yet), but he's scrimmaging more than ever before and daring his young players to trust their instincts … even to fail.
"What I'm saying is: fail fast. Fail fast," Calipari said. "And what I mean be that is play uncomfortable."
As Missouri coach Frank Haith explained at Media Days, Coach Cal's workload is not always an enviable one at this time of year. Every season, he's essentially picking up a roster from scratch and molding it into a winning machine — "It's not an easy task," Haith said — by the time March rolls around, though surely any team in the country would welcome Caulie-Stein and Poythress back to campus with open arms. If he's striving for perfection, those growing pains will have to be overcome much sooner, as Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina (and Robert Morris, for those wondering) await in the first two months of the season.
Perfection or no, the Wildcats should be good. Very good. There are premier athletes all over the floor and Randle, the freshman Calipari is looking to use in a Patrick Patterson-type role right now, was voted preseason SEC Player of the Year without playing a single minute of college basketball. Really, based on reputation, four or five other Kentucky players could legitimately contend for the award as well. It wouldn't surprise anyone coming from a roster that could feature as many as 10 future NBA Draft picks.
They all have to buy in first, though. As Calipari and the Kentucky program figured out last season, nothing is guaranteed. Perhaps the mastermind himself said it best: "They're not machines, they're kids."
Still, when searching for Calipari's team this season, it's best to look up.