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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

John Calipari challenging his Wildcats
to think differently heading into SEC opener

John Calipari will test his team Wednesday against Mississippi State after 11 days of nothing but practice. (Photo by James Pennington)

John Calipari will test his team Wednesday against Mississippi State after 11 days of nothing but practice. (Photo by James Pennington)


John Calipari’s latest credo to his players:


“Think pass when you have the ball. Think score when you don’t.”


This is typical Caliparian coach-speak that speaks just as loudly about his prowess as a coach as it does a commander of the language. The phrase neatly combs a valuable piece of basketball advice into a succinct, hard-hitting structure that can ring true in a player’s head. It’s a mental trick, which is good because sometimes young minds need tricking. It also can spin endlessly down the bandwidth, easily retweeted without getting over 140 characters.


Oh, but wait. Calipari begged to differ with one of the above sentences at a Tuesday news conference.


“It’s not a mental trick. It’s just to get them to think different,” he said. “I tell them all the time, I’m telling them to run blind. I mentioned this on my show last night. Run blind is like a football player who’s a wide receiver that is not receiving the ball but runs his pattern like he is receiving. That’s running blind.”


It’s not a mental trick. It’s just to get them to think different. Well, OK. It still rings true as an effective teaching tool.


And to get a young mind to think different is not an easy thing, as Calipari well knows. He said again that this young team among young teams is indeed the youngest he’s ever coached, and mental non-tricks are to be called upon as often as possible to break bad habits. Andrew Harrison admitted he’s been overtaken at times by bad habits; his worst is the tendency to quit every now and then and just stand straight up: not move without the ball, get lazy on defense, not preparing himself to receive passes if he’s off the ball.


In response, Calipari described one passage of practice over the past week.


“You should have seen him the other day,” Calipari said. “(Andrew Harrison) went down, and we threw him the ball. It was basket, dunk, assist, basket, four straight times when he didn’t have it. It came to him and he just blew by them. We’re just like, we’re looking around, like, ‘Wow, maybe he got it.’ Then about five minutes later he was standing straight up and down. (I) stopped (practice). ‘You’re standing.’ ‘Oh man.’ Because he’s done it 18 years that way.”


Even a player like Andrew Harrison, a point guard, said he’s getting used to not scoring as much, and Calipari’s new credo is forcing him into a new way of thinking. Harrison said he knows how much talent is around him, and it’s not up to him to score. Since the offense runs through him, and Calipari is telling his team to think pass with the ball—there you go.


But when he does need to score, such as he did in the Wildcats’ last outing Dec. 28 in a 73-66 win over Louisville, that requires a different mindset with a different set of habits than before, too.


“You can definitely understand where he’s coming from and what he means by it,” Harrison said. “Just being ready and trying to move to the open spot when you don’t have the ball.”


It’s odd to approach a game on Jan. 8, such as Wednesday’s game against Mississippi State will be played, with the thought that high school habits still need breaking. But at the same time, it will only be Kentucky’s 14th game together this season. And in many of those games, the Wildcats got by and even thrived if only because of the disparity in competition.


If there was any stretch for Calipari to pull out all the stops, declare a new war cry that is in no way, as he would say it, a mental trick—which in itself may be a trick by distracting from the perhaps-negative connotation of the word trick, and I will stop before this slope gets any more slippery—this is the stretch. The Wildcats had no games and no class from Dec. 28 to Jan. 7, and when they return to the floor Wednesday against the Bulldogs, they’ll have those two sentences in their heads any time they’re on the floor.


“See, the reason I’m saying, ‘Think pass when you have the ball and think score when you don’t have the ball,’ it flips on them how they’ve always played,” Calipari said. “The way they played—and this is every terrific high school player—‘I am going to score this ball and if I can’t score it I’m going to throw it to you, but before I do I’m going to take one more look to see if I can score this thing then I’m going to throw it to you and when I throw it to you I’m going to look at you now, see if you do anything.’ The other way is ‘I have it, I’m a passer. When I don’t have it, I’m down ready to score now.’


“And it’s just—it could be James Young’s learning that. We’re trying to teach Julius (Randle) when you throw it out of the post and they’re double-teaming, throw it out and repost,” Calipari said. “Don’t throw it out and go like that (makes three-goggles motion), or go like that (throws his hands up). Just throw it out and repost. But they didn’t know it. They didn’t know it, they didn’t do it. But they’re making strides.”