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John Calipari Q&A: Coach breaks down freshmen, returners, last season and more

Each year before the start of the basketball season, UK head coach John Calipari sits down for a roundtable interview with local reporters in September.


The reporters agree to UK’s requirement to embargo the interviews, and subsequent one-on-one interviews with each player, until Oct. 1.


You can read a transcript of the entire interview with a rejuvenated Calipari below in which he talks about his record-setting freshman class, his talented returners and a host of other issues (questions have been paraphrased for clarity and are in bold).


John Calipari enters his fifth season as UK's head coach this fall. (File photo by Jon Hale)

John Calipari enters his fifth season as UK’s head coach this fall. (File photo by Jon Hale)

What did you learn last year about coaching a young team?
“You can’t do what I did last year and have eight kids on scholarship. You just can’t. People want to talk about just the competition—and it’s true, you can’t save these kids from competition. I can’t save my own children from competition. That’s the United States. That’s what we’re about. So, what I tried to do was like, ‘It’s his turn, it’s his turn. We just won the national tittle.’ You can’t do it that way. We had no competition.


“But more than that, they were guys that needed to be out of the game, and they knew it. Like Alex (Poythress) at times. So it’s kind of like you’re playing golf and it goes south, so you try to play 27 more holes and it just gets worse. Your best bet is when it started, go home, have a beer, laugh about it, and then go out tomorrow and you play better. Well that happens if you have enough players. So it’s not just the competition. There were times Archie (Goodwin) needed to get his, ‘Just sit for a while, kid. I’m not mad at you. Just sit down.’ Well, we couldn’t do it. I did it, and I looked and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, go back in.’ You can’t do it that way.


“So I know there’s a number that’s too many, but you can’t do what we did a year ago. I did it, you know. It’s what I did. It was my choice. And so, you look back and say we put the kids in a bad position on a lot of fronts.”


A few of your players said they got caught up in the hype early last season. What do you do to keep this team, which is receiving so much praise, from doing the same?
“You had guys that were delusional, too, about who they were. And when we started practicing, we knew. After the Maryland game: ‘Like, guys, this is not what we’ve been coaching, this is not how we’ve been playing. We don’t have a whole lot of good choices here.’ This team will be different. I worked them out the other day. You know, it’s what I was used to seeing, so I don’t think that will be a problem.


“The issue for us is going to be how quickly can we come together. Can we get in the kind of shape you have to be in to compete at the level we’re going to try to compete? They get along. They got along before they got here, kind of like other teams I’ve had where, before we walk on campus, they know each other and like each other. Last year, that wasn’t the case. Willie (Cauley-Stein) didn’t know Nerlens (Noel). Nerlens didn’t know Archie. None of them knew Alex. They had played together a little, but they didn’t know each other. So, we never … you know. This group, you can tell. They’re hanging around each other, they’re following each other. And again, you can’t compare one year to the next.


“The one thing—and I’d rather just move forward because that’s how I am—but in a lot of ways, last year was a total success for players. Three guys graduate, 3.4 grade-point average, two No. 1 picks, Julius (Mays) gets a contract overseas. The two kids that come back were projected that they could have been first-round picks. Kyle (Wiltjer) is the (SEC) Sixth Man of the Year. I mean, when you look at it: 20 games. If you beat Vandy in the (SEC) tournament, you’re probably in the NCAA Tournament even though we weren’t a very good team. There were things that happened for those kids that were really good. For us, and for me, as a staff, it was really disappointing that we didn’t come together where guys weren’t able to elevate their game. Maybe they just weren’t capable. But aside from that, you know, when I look back I say, for the kids, you know, they can look back and say, ‘Was it a bad year for this guy, that guy, that guy?’ They go, ‘Nope. It was a good year for me.’ But it just wasn’t what we expect a team to be able to do.”


Was it difficult to wait for three of your freshmen (James Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison) to arrive on campus after missing summer school?
“Well they had academic stuff they had to finish, which they did. It was nothing crazy, but again, you’ve got to understand, our summer school (sessions), they overlap. So I haven’t talked to our president about it, but you’ve almost got to do something … I’ve never heard of two summer schools overlapping. Why would that happen? We don’t even know why. Why wouldn’t you have a June summer session and then one that starts after July 4, which is what everybody in the country does? So if you’re in Chicago, those schools don’t let out until the 23rd, 24th of June. Guess what? Those kids can’t even get in our summer school, either one. You can’t come to summer school, you’re not out of high school yet. So, the way we do this, we knew, ‘OK, I don’t think those two are going to get done, those three are going to get done with this class or that, whatever they have to finish up.’ And they didn’t. So that was the issue, but we knew. We were comfortable throughout. I mean, I don’t know, (sports information directors) John (Hayden) or DeWayne (Peevy), somebody had said, ‘There’s all kind of rumors,’ and I said, ‘There’s always all kind of rumors at this place.’ But they’re fine.”


Have those players kind of slid in seamlessly to the team since arriving?
“Yeah. They all know each other. This group, they want to win, and they know they need each other and they know it’s going to take each of them. We’ve been kind of clear with individuals what we’re having to do and what we’re trying to do. So, they’re good.”


Can anything happen to speed up or slow down the process of coming together as a team?
“Speeding it up is just—you get in games and they start feeling it faster than they normally do, but there’s a process here. Don’t know how many freshmen will start, but you could start anywhere from three to five. They’ve not played together. We’re, right now, already showing them more of the dribble drive than we’ve had since my first year here. And so I’m showing them tape of some of my Memphis teams, how we played. But when I look at it, those guys had played it three years except for Derrick Rose. The other guys played it three years. So it just takes time for things to develop.


“You hope it’s quicker than it should be. You hope your veterans, your sophomores—Alex and Willie—elevate so they can drag. But you just don’t know. I think the biggest thing is the conditioning, the toughness, the mental toughness. If that’s not where I think it is, then that will slow down the process. But the other thing is just through experience. You’ve got to get on the court. You build your own self-esteem, you build your confidence through demonstrated performance, and they’ve got to get on the court and do it.”


Has Alex Poythress made the strides you hoped for?
“He’s way better, but the guys around him are way better. But he’s made strides. I’m happy, too. This summer going against Julius (Randle) every day—you know, that’s a handful, that’s going against like a 6-9 Michael Kidd-(Gilchrist) every day, where he’s not slowing down, he’s trying to dunk every ball on you. You don’t feel like playing today, or, ‘I don’t feel like embarrassing anybody.’ Well, the choice is: You embarrass him, or he’s embarrassing you. It ain’t about not embarrassing anybody. You embarrass him, or he’s embarrassing you. So now all of the sudden you start changing. You’re like, ‘Whoa, how do I do this? What do I do?’ He’s done fine. He’s got a hamstring right now, so he hasn’t played since we’ve been back, but he’ll be fine.”


You talk about that matchup between Poythress and Randle. Are there other matchups in these workouts and practices you hope help players?
“I’m going to tell you who’s better than I thought he was: Dakari Johnson. His body fat is down, I think, seven percent. So now all of the sudden, he’s dunking everything around the rim, where before the question mark we all had was, ‘Plays well below the rim, how do we do this?’ But all of the sudden, I’m sitting there watching them and all the stuff that we’re doing, he’s easily dunking balls now. He’s one of those bigs that we’ve had to play against that puts his body on you, you have to do something. One guy can’t do. So he’s better than I thought, and that’s going to really challenge Willie.


“And you know, it’s almost going to make Willie mad. We did some stuff yesterday, and all the sudden Willie got mad. Then how he’s going to have to play came out. You know, it’s not like I want kids to play angry, but some kids … it’s all different for every kid. I think that Dominique (Hawkins) can do for Andrew (Harrison) and Aaron (Harrison) what they need to see. The guys who are going to guard them, how big are they going to be? How big is the point guard on the other team going to be? 6-6? He’s going to be about 6-1. He’s going to be tough, hard-nosed, physical. Well, that’s what Dominique is. ‘So you go right after these guys. You physically, defensively show them what they’re going to be facing.’ I think that’s going to be good.


“But I even think James (Young) and Alex having to go, because I think Alex looks around and says, ‘Maybe let me play the three some. Don’t have to play this one. Let me go against this guy.’ So I think that’s going to be there. But we can play big, we can play small. It’s back to where we were. Like, I’m watching right now, we’re doing drills, and they’re just playing through bumps, naturally getting to the rim, and they’re banging each other. It’s like, I went home and I was just singing to myself, ‘We’re back, ready to start talking crap again. Here we go.’ And then what popped in my mind? ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are all going to leave. Where’s my phone?’ Now I’m calling (Class of) ’14. I made two calls before I got home. You know I don’t live that far from here. So, it’s the life we chose, I guess you could say.


There seems to be this idea that as twins, the Harrisons are so used to sharing everything with each other they might have a difficult time sharing with other teammates. Do you address that at all?
“Well, we’ve talked about it. You know, what were the myths when John Wall came here? What were the myths?”


Ball hog.


“What else? You remember what happened before he got here?”


Bad teammate.


“Go ahead, what else?”


Bad kid.


“We heard it all. And then, you all were stunned that this kid’s a great kid. One thing happened during the year: Everybody figured we’ve got to take him out, and so their whole defense was geared to him. It’s got harder and harder and harder, and then he came out one day and said, ‘Not having fun.’ No kidding, it’s really hard. They’re trying to take you out now, and you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do. But at the end of the day, everybody walked away and said what a great kid this kid is.


“You know, you’ve got different guys that will come in with myths. One of the things they’ll say is, ‘Why would you want to play with those two? They only play (together).’ Well, who started that myth? Everybody recruiting against us. So all the sudden, they fed that (to the) media, they fed it to everybody. And they know it’s out there, they know that’s a myth. When you watch them, they don’t even hang together. Like, they’re not living in the same room together. They’ll have their own two or three guys he hangs around. But, they have the same DNA.


“I had two kids when I was at UMass that were not twins and not brothers but born on the same day in Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish. And those two were like twins. My team got really good. Because they could look at each other, they knew what it meant. They talked in Spanish. ‘Go back door.’ The defense didn’t have any idea what the dude was saying. And the guy went back door and he just threw it to him. If they were yelling at each other, they were doing it in Spanish.”


Calipari has complied a 123-26 record in four years at UK. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Calipari has complied a 123-26 record in four years at UK. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Do the Harrisons speak another language?
“DNA’s the same. They can look at each other and they know what the hell they’re talking about.”


Are you taking about Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla at UMass?
“Yeah, yeah. I asked those two to come in when I had two Dominican kids on my team. I had four kids that spoke Spanish. I had them come in, and I asked them, ‘All right, how do you say, ‘F you,’ in Spanish?’ So I made them all say it, and I listened. I said, ‘How do you say, “You’re an a****** in Spanish? How do you say…’ I went through all this nasty (stuff). So I said, ‘If I ever hear that stuff pointed to me, you’re out of here. I just want you to know.’ ”


How much more physical do you think this team will be?
“Oh, man. I keep hearing that they’re going to call fouls this year. I just watched a whole season where people beat the living crap out of each other, all the way through to the finals. So we’re going to play like we’re on the verge of fouling every possession. I’ve got enough guys. So, that’s what I think others are teaching: Just play until you’re on the verge of fouling, and I’ll complain about too many fouls called. We can play that way, ’cause I’ve got more numbers. Then physically, you have to want to play that way. You have to have the physique to play that way. And I think we do. We have it.


“Hopefully, they start calling it. We can always backup, but it appears as though—get body to body, hip-check people, push them in the back, just play, bang, do it. That was not one team; there were 50 teams last year (that) played that way. That’s how the game ended up being. Now they’re all mad, and the guys that were doing it are saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to call more fouls.’ Are you out of your mind? You’re the reason that we’re playing this way. But it’s, you know—you see how it’s played. We can play that way with this team.”


“I want to press more with this team. I don’t know if we’ll press with a big on the ball, but you can with both Marcus (Lee) and Willie. Dakari would have to go back, play our normal press. We played with Willie on the ball at times last year, and I kind of liked it. We have more players now. We have more toughness and that kind of stuff, more athleticism. We may press from 25 feet and down. In other words, in the quarter-court. Well, how do you do that? Well, you’re trapping certain passes, you’re trapping areas on the court and scrambling. So, we may do that because of this team. But at the end of the day, this team, like my teams other than—well, last year’s team with Nerlens was one of the best defensive teams. With who we had, with Nerlens, we were still one of the best defensive teams. After Nerlens left, we’re weren’t the same.


“But this team should be like my teams, where we should be one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country, stopping drives, being physical, making it tough on people to score, length. I think a lot of teams will play zone against this team if we really get going the way we want to play. I think teams will just say, ‘Screw it, play zone, make them shoot.’ The difference is this team can shoot. So now all of the sudden, you’ve got four or five guys that can make shots. The other thing is, I like size against zone because you can just look over it. When you’ve got smaller or weaker guys, they’re just trying to throw to a guy next to them. When you’ve got bigger guys, they’re looking at the zone like ‘that guy over there is open.’ So my best teams against zone have just been longer teams. This team should be pretty long.”


Are you confident you have enough three-point shooters?
“I would say, but you know—even we talk about Alex: ‘Wow, just a disappointing year.’ I think he averaged 11 points and seven rebounds, shot 58 percent, 42 from the three. He just wasn’t Anthony Davis. But as far as freshman go, he was good. But I had to play him whether he was playing bad or good, and he went, you know—it wasn’t his fault what happened. But he can shoot. All I want to do is, we’ve got to figure out exactly how we’re going to play, who we’re going to have where. We’re starting to work through some of that as I work them out.


“I may do something different this year. On the 15th of September, when we can start working out with the team twice a week, we may do one hour a week, the drill work we always do to get them ready for dribble-drive and teaching them how to play basketball. Then for an hour a week, they play and I kind of coach them through it, which I’ve not done before. So in other words, they’re playing five-on-five, and we’re just playing. We’re playing. Right now, they’re playing pick-up. The weight staff and the people are saying they’re playing so hard. We don’t have the coolness, like, ‘I’m going to act like I just don’t care.’ You know what I’m saying? We don’t have it. These dudes are going after each other. So if you play for an hour and a half, and you’re really going and you’re up and down the whole time, that’s good.


“You’re learning about each other, you’re getting in shape. You don’t need to do all kind of other things if they’ll do that. So, when I heard that, I told the guys, I said, ‘Look, if that’s what these pick-up games are like, then when we start practicing I’m going to coach you while you’re playing and we’re going to get you to play. I’ll stop you, and make you, you know. We’ll just go up and down the court.’


“Now, we’re not playing any pick-and-roll basketball right now. See, I think pick-and-roll basketball has set our game back. What happens is, because you watch the NBA run pick-and-roll, what’s every team from seventh grade on running right now? So do you get movement, do you get motion, do you get cutting, do you get screens? You get none of that. Two guys come down, and the other guys space out and you go pick-and-roll. Well, think about it. So we’re not. Right now, there is absolutely no pick-and-roll basketball when they play. You’ve got to create for your teammate, you’ve got to get it on a drive, set a screen for your man, run the court, create, cut hard, get a back-door, cut to the ball. You’ve got to learn to play basketball. So that’s what we’re doing right now.”


Have you ever had a roster that compares to this one in sheer volume and depth of talent?
“Until I get with them, I don’t know. My first year in 2010 was really, really good. I told you at that time it was the most talented team I’d ever coached, probably more talented, more guys than the 2012 team. But see, we all look at the 2011 team and say, ‘Well that team …’ Wait a minute. Doron Lamb in the NBA, Terrence (Jones) in the NBA, Josh (Harrellson) in the NBA, Brandon (Knight) in the NBA, DeAndre (Liggins) in the NBA. Yeah, that team was shaky. Darius (Miller) in the NBA. We had six guys that played in the league, that still play now. That team, how’d they get to the Final Four? You know what I say, like some of the guys, I say I coached them up. That was me. We should have never been to the Final Four with that team. That was the way I coached. Reality of it is, we had six pros. We didn’t know it then. None of us knew. But (in) reality, we did.


“So you’re talking 2010, that team and 2012, you had a lot of talented kids on that team that decided to come together. And we talked about it with this team. This team, reaching their dreams is going to be based on how far this team goes and what this team does and how much we win.”


Calipari is looking for his second national championship and third Final Four appearance at UK. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Calipari is looking for his second national championship and third Final Four appearance at UK. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Are you confident the block/charge rule change will be enforced?
“Well, I’ve been saying it for—how long have I been saying it? There are a lot of things I’ve been saying for five years that are coming to fruition. Block/charge, I’ve been screaming about. Well, you’ve got teams that can’t play, so what they do is just flop in front of people and just start flopping. Well, that’s not our part. Recruit better players. I mean, just do what the NBA does: If it’s even close, it’s a block. Stop it. Play defense. Quit trying to, you know, have a bearing on the game because you’re not this, we’re going to do this to play. No. You’ve got to play basketball, and if you’re in there flopping around—if you’re on the ball and a guy sticks his shoulder down, that’s a charge. If you’re standing there and his head is down, he runs you (over), that’s a charge. If this guy’s driving, he comes over, ‘Well his toe was (makes random noises) … We had to, blah?’ What, that’s a charge? No. If it’s close, it’s a block.


“Good for the game. We have to play that way, too, now. Now, you encourage more blocks versus charges. Block the shot. Come weakside and block it. ‘Well, I can’t so I’m just going to flop underneath this guy and hope they give me a charge.’ And the crazy thing was, if he was outside of the arc, what did they do? They called it a charge. What in the world? But, they’re saying they’re changing it. We’ll see.


What do you expect from Marcus Lee?
“Yeah, he’s different than all these guys. He and I talked the other day, and he was in the office. I said, ‘Look, you just keep being you.’ I said, ‘What do you do well?’ He said, ‘I defend, I block shots, I run the court.’ Do that. We’ll figure out your offense, you just do that. So we’re playing and doing drills one-on-one-on-one with the bigs, and he’s there. He gets scored on, didn’t try to block it, and I go, ‘Didn’t you tell me you block shots?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well then, block it.’ Just standing there. ‘Go block every shot. Go try to rebound every ball. I’m not asking you to be Dakari. Guess what? Dakari can’t be you. Just be you.’ So in time, he’s going to be really good. In these practices, he wants to learn, he wants to get better. He’s a guy that wants to be in this kind of environment. He’ll be fine.


What kind of natural shot-blocking ability does he have?
“When you look at his body, he’s got those long legs, long arms, you know. We’re doing one-on-one-on-one with the bigs where you play him, he’ll play you, just keep rotating, and he’s going against Dakari. Now, Dakari weighs 50 more pounds than him—at least 45. So you’re going to bang with him? You’ve got to out-quick him. So he’s trying to bang. ‘Stop. Why are you trying to do that? You’d lose that battle every time. Dakari’s going to do it to you because he wins that battle every time, so you’re going to use your quickness to not let him get the ball, try to steal from him. You’re going to use your quickness. Try to block a shot that he’s trying to put his body on you. And when you catch it, you’re trying to run by him. He’s trying to put a body on you. Don’t let him.’


“So it’s all the coaching, them playing to their strengths, which is what we’re trying to get them all to do. He’ll be fine.”


What have you seen from Alex Poythress so far in terms of his mindset?
“His head’s up, he’s looking you in the eye. I think he’s more confident. He’s ready for the year. His hamstring, he did something to it a few weeks before he got here, so he’s been out, but, you know, he’s well beyond where he’d been. But that’s the growth, you know. Again, when you look at his numbers as a freshman in this league, you say he had a hell of a year for a freshman. But this is Kentucky. This is a different animal. There’s nothing like this. There’s never been anything like this, what we’re going through, and everybody’s held to a different standard. It’s just how it is. You know what? If you want to come here, you better accept that, or don’t come here. It’s not changing. You think it’s changing? No, it ain’t.


“So now what happens to him is, he comes back. He knows, ‘I’ve got to change. There are things I’m going to do different, and I’m going to do them.’ It’s part of growth. And that shouldn’t be like something bad. You know how happy I’d be if I had guys for three and four years? I’d be ecstatic. Are you kidding me? Each kid is on his own time frame. Like I tell these kids when we recruit them, ‘I don’t know what your timeframe is. I don’t know what the maturation for your body is going to be. What do you think, I’m looking into a crystal ball and I know stuff? I don’t. I don’t know if you’re skill level is going to come. I don’t know if you have toughness in late games to make plays to turn people on. We don’t know all that. If you have all that, then you’re going to leave after a year. If you don’t, you can’t, you’re not leaving after a year.’ ”


What about your initial impression of Julius Randle made you call him an ‘alpha beast?’
“Oh geeze. In his workouts, he’s like, you know. And you know there are times where he wants to settle on the perimeter, be like a guard, but we were doing drills where he had to attack. He’s got to get to his right hand more, because you know how everybody’s going to play him: Make him go right. They may even play him and he can. But he’s more comfortable getting to his left. But when he missed it, his head was right back on the rim until it went in. Like, oh my gosh. Then I tell the guys what happened two years ago was, Michael dragged us to that level as a team, and that’s what I’m asking Julius to do. ‘Forget about everything else. Just do that right there and drag us. We’ll help you with all the other stuff. You don’t lose that.’ ”


Does he seem ready and wiling to take on that role?
“Oh yeah. Yeah, and he wants to impress me, but he’s quiet about it. He knows. He’s different now. That’s a skill. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got drafted No. 2 on that skill. Wasn’t any other skill, it was that skill.”


Does Randle maybe have more of other skills that Kidd-Gilchrist?
“I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to say he’s better than Michael. There’s stuff I’ve seen Michael do that I couldn’t believe human beings could do. But this kid, he’s his own guy. He’s 6-9, 250, nimble, you know, and he’s tough.”


In high school, Randle really like to have the ball and distribute. Will you have him do some of that here?
“He is. It’s what he can do. Yeah. That’s what happens in the dribble-drive when you have four guys that all can do it. Now all of the sudden, you can’t. And if you can shoot a little bit, they can’t leave, they’ve got to kind of stay in between out and in. You can’t just stay in because a guy just pulls up and shoots it. I haven’t figured out where we’re going to play (on the fast break), he and the three.


“I’ve done it different ways. Patrick Patterson, I played behind because I didn’t think he was as good at finishing. Alex, if you ask me who is a better finisher if you threw it ahead, probably Julius, but it may change. So what we might do with he and James and Julius: Both of you are running this side of the floor, whoever runs faster, you’re front and the other guy’s behind but you’re running the same side. So if you both start running, one of you talk to one and the other. We’re good where whoever’s out ahead goes. I don’t know that. I don’t know if we’re running them left side, right side. That stuff I’m going to try to figure out between the 15th and the 26th. OK, what am I comfortable with?”


Has Willie Cauley-Stein discovered what he can be?
“No, no. He’s still, you know … I think Dakari’s going to bring a lot of it out of him. But this team—last year, we needed Willie to do stuff, again, that he wasn’t capable of. Now, when Nerlens was there, he looked really good because when he didn’t look good I could take him out and put Nerlens back in. I could play them together a little bit, little bit. I could tease you when you watched them. Then Nerlens went down and what happened? Now he’s got to play 35 minutes, and you see every wart, every kink, everything. And, we needed him to do more, and he wasn’t capable of doing it yet. Yet. Now he’s on a team, and he can basically be who he is. Now the question is, ‘Will he be challenged enough to take his stuff and not just defer to all these guys?’ Take your stuff to this level. Well, how do you do that unless you have competition, unless you have that mindset? If he doesn’t have the mindset, then you have the competition that we have. And I think the same with Alex. You fight like heck, you stay focused, you stay upbeat, or someone else plays. Man. Then when you watch them and that guys plays real well, you’re like, ‘Man.’ That’s what competition does.


“We don’t have too many guys, but I think we have enough where everybody’s going to be kept honest. But we’re young. You know, we had three guys come back from the one team. You guys said, ‘Yeah, but you had veterans that came back.’ But those veterans went to a Final Four: Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius. This team went to an NIT and lost on the road.”


What do like about James Young outside of his shooting ability?
“First of all, his core strength has to improve because to play the way we’re playing, when you get the bump, you’ve got to be in a position, and your core strength is what leverages you to be able to stay the course. I call it ‘bulldogging.’ You can bulldog if you have to. He doesn’t have that yet. His is more of a slippery game. If he gets bumped, he’ll kind of, you know—but he can really score, and he’s really skilled. He plays low already.


“You know, my other guys–even Julius—they play standing straight up and down. You can’t play that way. You’re not quick enough, you don’t react, you don’t have a quick twitch when you’re up like this because you’ve got to go down first. He naturally, when he has it, he’s down. Aaron and Andrew are kind of up still. Because they could do that (in high school). It didn’t matter who you were, I’m going to be quicker and faster than you. Now all of the sudden, whew. No, no. If you don’t bend over, you’re not going to be able to get shoulders by people, you’re not going to be able to do those things. So, he already has that in his game. Now the question will be with all these young kids, ‘Defensively, will you be what you’re capable of being?’


“I’m watching (Young) and I always questioned, ‘OK, is he rough enough?’ On this team, you don’t really have to be rough because you’ve got three guys that are pit bull dogs. Three. OK? So that’s pretty good on one team to have three guys like that. But I always said, I want to see. So he played a team that put a football player on him down in Augusta, and I watched the whole game. And the guy beat the living crap out of him. He went inside, he wasn’t afraid, he still scored, and it didn’t phase him. And the dude put him in as a football player to play him and try to beat him up, and he held his own. From that point, I was sold. I was like, ‘OK, let’s get this kid.’ That was my only question: When this stuff gets rough, what’s he going to do? He didn’t back away one bit.”


Are the three pit bulls you mention the Harrisons and Randle?
“I would say.”


You said Willie Cauley-Stein can be what he is. What exactly is he?
“In other words, when he’s really going good, you go. When he’s not going as good, he doesn’t have the heat on him. But the question is, ‘How do you get better?’ OK, well, either you are a kid that’s going to drive yourself—I walk in the gym, you’re in here at 11 o’clock at night (like) Brandon Knight and some of these other kids—or you’re not. OK, if you’re not, then who’s on the team that’s driving you? That’s either going to go by you, he goes by you. You know there’s nobody promised here who’s going to play. Either he goes by you or you stay in front of him by: Keep improving, figure out ways of knocking this kid back. And he’s got that in Dakari.


“I’m telling you, Dakari is better than I thought. He’s legitimately like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize.’ Now, can he and Willie play together? I know this: Willie can guard a bunch of positions. The thing with Willie that makes it nice in having a 6-5 point guard that weighs 220 pounds is that you can switch off pick-and-rolls. So all this pick-and-roll, high pick-and-roll, I only pick-and-roll … Coach better try something different. That ain’t working because you just switch everything. When you have a 6-5, 220-pound point guard and your five-man is Willie Cauley and can play the point, how do you pick-and-roll? Like, he can guard your point and I can guard your five. Now, it’s not like I’m starting a game that way, but in a pitch, the ball swings, we switch back, we may do it. We’re not going to start that way, but there’s things you can do and why Willie has a strength that makes us unique and different.”


How does Andrew Harrison’s approach to playing point guard maybe compare to some of your previous guys?
“I don’t know yet until I get him. I don’t know everything these kids can do yet, and that’s one of the reasons why I want to do pick-up, controlled, coached five-on-five. So I can watch and see, ‘OK, wow.’ Like, in the small period of time that I worked with him the other day, Aaron is unbelievable getting to his (left). He’s better than I thought. Everybody’s saying Andrew is way above Aaron. That’s not true.


“You won’t believe this: They really look the same. Like, they do. And I’m telling you (Aaron) went to his left hand, shouldered and laid easily, like lefty. And I’m, like, saying, ‘He may be a strong left driver.’ Andrew seemed to want to go a little more right. When he went left, he didn’t do it as well. I told Aaron after, ‘You need to teach your brother what you’re doing going left because I’d like him to be able to go left and maybe start the offense on the left side instead of the right side.’ But I can’t do that unless he can go hard left like that. But Aaron did stuff, like, I’m like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize.’ So, I’m going to learn about them. I don’t know all the stuff about these kids.”


Can both Harrisons play both guard positions?
“Yeah. Yeah. We can switch jerseys. There’s a lot of stuff we can do.”


Can you tell the twins apart?
“They have a different haircut right now, so I can.”


Were they ordered to get different haircuts?
“No. No. Mom tried to tell me something about, ‘You know this kid, has a thing (points at forehead).’ I’m like, ‘What?’ So, I may be able in time, if I’m around them I’ll know who’s who. But I’m just telling you, they are identical twins. I mean, they look like … talk a little bit different. You can tell they’re different when you’re with them and they’re speaking to you.”


Following a season in which he struggled to push the right buttons, Calipari is once again excited about the team he can field. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Following a season in which he struggled to push the right buttons, Calipari is once again excited about the team he can field. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Do you get kind of giddy when you think about working with this team?
“I do, but I’m telling you: I’m also on the phone three hours a night trying to figure out who’s our ’14 class going to be. You know I’m sitting with coaches and guy’s saying, ‘Yeah, we only got one scholarship for next year.’ What? Or, ‘We’re only recruiting big guys. Our guards are set for the next three years.’ What? I mean, it’s not, you know. It’s not what I want, it’s not my rule. But it is what it is. And when I watch kids, I have a good feel for ‘All right, if this plays out, what’s going to happen here?’ And you don’t always know.


“I never thought Marquis Teague would leave after a year. That kind of got us last year. Even as the year wound down, I thought this kid’s going to stay. When he comes in, ‘I’m going to go,’ now all of the sudden, I’ve only got this guy in the program. Do I want to go out and get one or two more? How do I do this? He’ll be good enough, we’ll do … then all the sudden, you get trapped. That’s what happened. But it was my choice. Part of my choice was I didn’t want to bring anybody scaring away the class I knew we had coming in. All right, then eat it. You just went through what you went through, and it was your choice. So, that’s why I didn’t blame anybody.


“And I’m not taking the credit for us winning the national title. I had good players. Went to a Final Four. I had good players, good players. They wanted to come together. They were good kids. We’ll do our job, but you know, I think, again, yeah I’m excited about coaching this team.”


What has Dakari Johnson done to impress you so much?
“Body fat’s down six or seven percent. His weight’s down. So now all the sudden, he’s running better, he’s more nimble on his feet. His conditioning is better, which means he’s trying to dunk balls. A lot of times you say, ‘Well, he plays below the rim because it was his choice.’ Now he could have played higher, but that’s hard. I mean, ‘For me to do that all the time, oh my God. I’ve got to work like crazy.’ Yeah, now you’re starting to see it. And I think he’s challenged by Willie. Like, I’m not going anywhere. ‘If it’s me and you, I’m going at you.’ You know, ‘Either you fight me back, or I just bury you.’ So, it’s good.”


Have you reached out Terrence Jones and DeAndre Liggins after recent legal troubles?
“Yeah. I talked to both of them. I just, you know, ‘How can I help you? Is there anything you want me to do or help you with?’ They’re grown men now. They’re still considered to me, children, to me, but they’re not. They’re grown men. And you know, guys make choices and then you’ve got to deal with it. That’s the great thing about our country: In most cases, you chose to do something, you have to deal with it.


“But I think, again, overall, our kids, we’ve got great kids. How about them all coming back? We’re going to give away between ($700,00) and $800,000 at that (alumni) game. One night? Yeah. For this, the fantasy camp to come together and this alumni game, we’re looking at a pool of money, and we’re just giving it away.


(Editor’s note: “That alumni game,” played Sept. 9, raised over $1 million for 17 different charities.)


“And so, I want them to know this is the kind of impact you have, you guys come together and do something. And they are handing out the checks.


“So there’s a lot of things going on, and you want the guys to know: You come back here, you still have an impact (on) people. It’s funny, you have guys calling you to come back. In the game before the NBA game, Kenny Walker‘s gonna play in that game now. Now, he hasn’t been in that building and playing in how long? I wonder if he can still jump the way he jumped. But, you’re going to have Wayne Turner, Andre Riddick. You’re going to have Jared Prickett. You’re going to have guys playing against (fantasy) camp All-Stars. But that’s good, because they’re all 40. It isn’t like, ‘I’m 40 and they’re 20.’ Everybody’s the same age. That’ll be the pre-game before the NBA game.


“And a couple of the guys, because of contract stuff, will be here but may not be able to play. So it may not be exactly ’10 against ’12 teams. It’ll probably be a bunch of the ’10s and a bunch of the ’12s with other guys mixed in, because a couple guys have contract stuff that they’re waiting on, which means they can’t play.


“This is a good weekend. It’s a good weekend because our players here get to see the guys come back. And I’m telling you, our alums, NBA players, they were all mad now. You understand, when they go in that locker room for an NBA game and Kentucky’s playing that night, everybody’s trying to bet you. They’re trying to, like, ‘I want a thousand, what’s the point (spread)?’ And you lose? You’re not happy. And then they lost to this team and that team, and—there’s an alum of that other team in that locker room or—you ready for this?—on that other team. So you’re warming up and they’re meeting at half-court talking about, ‘My team’s gonna kick the crap out of your team.’ Nah. Guys were mad. And so these guys will hear it. ‘You better not be doing what you did (last season).’ That’s why Eric (Bledsoe) and DeMarcus (Cousins) were so happy when they played pick-up against them. ‘We’re back! Yeah!’ And we’re not back. We got a long way to go. But as far as what we look like, we’re back. Now we look like we’ve always looked like. Whether they’ll play that way, we’ll have to see.”


How are you trying to keep this team mentally focused? Are you using last year as an example of what not to do at all?
“I’m not talking—listen, I’ve talked more about last year’s team right here than I have since the Robert Morris game. That thing is so far behind me, it ain’t even in my mindset. I don’t want them to think about last year. They have nothing to do with last year. The only thing we’re talking about is, ‘How do you get better? How do you come together as a team? How do you sacrifice for your teammates?’


“Do you know we played Louisville in the Final Four, no one on the team took more than nine shots and we win the game. Go back and look, I bet it’s never happened in the history of the Final Four that no one on a winning team took more than nine shots. Jerry (Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader) will look and write if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s ever happened. So my thing to my team is, what happens, they all sacrificed for each other. Are you willing to do it? And now, what happens here? And they’re telling me they’re sharing the ball, like it’s amazing, they’re passing it to each other.


“I think they know what’s out there. I think the twins know. They know what’s said about them. You don’t think they look on the Internet and this stuff? Whether it’s James …James will defer a little bit like Eric Bledsoe. ‘Don’t defer. You’re as good as any of these guys. Don’t defer. But you’re not being selfish. Just attack, be strong, know you can play with these guys.’


“So, all that being said, I don’t talk about any of that. I’ve talked about to you the mistakes that I made that led to what we did and how we played. I’m telling you how we’re trying to cure that. One is—ready?—better players. More of them. You know, so some of it wasn’t their fault. I had guys in the game that needed to be out. OK, put in Twany (Beckham). Wait a minute, you can’t. We weren’t able to do it. I’m worried about this group moving forward, not using last team to try to say, ‘Hey, this could happen.’ No, that doesn’t happen unless we chose to make it happen with this group.”


Do you want to go into the season with an idea of what you main rotation will look like?
“Don’t know. I don’t know. I’ll play as many guy as can play. You know the guys are telling me Jarrod (Polson) is playing well. OK. Jon Hood‘s playing better. OK. What does that mean? I don’t know yet until we start playing, until I put them in the game and they perform. If they deserve to get playing time, we will. If we press, I’ll be playing more people anyway. But I’m not going to play 11, 12 guys. I won’t do that.


“You know, you get to nine, maybe a 10th guy plays, but we could settle on seven. All right, these are the seven. I remember when Coach (John) Wooden was alive, I called him about my team in 2010, and I said ‘You’re watching my team, I’m trying to get these guys together, what do you think?’ He said, ‘Coach, you play too many guys.’ I said, ‘Really, why do you think that coach?’ He said ‘Because you do it cause of recruiting and everything else. You can’t afford not to play guys.’ He said, ‘When we coached, you played six guys, seven guys, and that’s it.’ Now, if you wanted to play, you go and practice and prove that you’re better than him, and then go in the game and perform. Then he’ll sit, and you’ll play. And if you have to sit two years, that’s not my responsibility. ‘But you have other things that I understand.’


“Well, I don’t feel that way. And at the time, he was right because of the team I had. I just walked in here. I had a lot of guys I was trying to play. Jack Leaman told me the same thing when I was at UMass. The year I played six guys, we went to the the Final Four and had the best team in the country, the year I played six guys. The year before I played nine guys, we got to the Elite Eight. We were good, but he always said you’re not going to be quite as good as you could be as a team when you’re trying to play nine. So all the old-timers tell you the same thing.


“Now if you want it to be about you and your system and all that, and you keep flipping guys in and out, and in and out, and in and out … you think you know, but the reality of it is, if you really want to be good, you get a team of guys together and you just—as the year goes on, they get better as a team because they get to learn about each other.”


What can Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood provide off the court?
“Look, they can give us stuff on the court. They’re going to have an opportunity to play. It’s a challenge, but they’re going to have an opportunity. I would tell you that the way they handle themselves in all the workouts to drag these guys, trying to finish first in all the runs, trying to push these guys in the weight training, trying to explain to them because they’ve been around that every game we play is someone’s Super Bowl. ‘You’re not going to realize it until you’re in the games. You better train like your life depends on it. Then when you play, you better have more fun than that other team because that the team is tough, wound tight and trying to kill you.’ And they can tell them. Not coming from me. ‘We went through it.’ Willie and Alex, the same thing. Now, what I told the team as a whole: ‘We need leadership. And you young guys, if these guys lead you, then go. If they don’t you lead, run right by them and you lead. I don’t care who leads.’ We’ve had freshmen lead before, and we’ve had juniors and seniors lead. But someone’s got to step up and drag the team, and teach, and talk, and do that. So, hopefully those veteran players are going to do that.”


What do you expect from Derek Willis?
“The challenge for him is he’s going against physical men. When you talk Julius, you talk Alex, you talk Dakari, you talk Willie, you’re talking four guys that physically can throw (down). So some of his, it’s just, again: You don’t know the maturation process. But right now, he’s stronger and in better shape than he was, but he’s got a ways to go with that. Especially because he’s not playing a position where you can physically not be up to snuff. It’s the same thing with Marcus Lee. Then you’re trying to say, ‘OK, what strengths do you have that you can add to the team right now?’ I think he’s going to be fine. I think Dominique’s going to be fine. They’re not as far along as some of the guys we have, but they’ll be fine.”




In the weeks leading up to the 2013 UK men’s basketball media day, KyForward is previewing the season with a series of stories about the Cats resulting from interviews with players and head coach John Calipari from September. As they publish, you can see all the stories in the series here.

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