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Wildcats have the competitive edge John Calipari is looking for in preseason

Kentucky coach John Calipari answers a question during Media Day Thursday at Memorial Coliseum. Calipari is entering his 10th season as coach of the Wildcats. (Kentucky Today/Tammie Brown)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Competition is good and Kentucky has plenty of competitors on the roster. It’s given John Calipari a chance to sit back and coach rather than spend his time motivating the Wildcats behind the scenes.

“When you don’t have to coach effort, when you don’t have to coach the enthusiasm, the passion you have to play with, when you don’t have to coach a competitive spirit, fight, go, come on, dive on that, I don’t have to coach that with this team,” he said during the team’s annual Media Day Thursday at Memorial Coliseum. “Now you know what you’re coaching? Basketball. So now you coach basketball, and I love coaching basketball.”

That has not always been the case during Calipari’s first decade as coach of the Wildcats. Some teams had the competitive spirit, others didn’t and it took more coaching on Calipari’s part to inject a dose of enthusiasm into his squad.

“That other stuff is like having to take the guy to the dentist, open your mouth, take the needle — I mean, it’s painful for them and it’s painful for me,” he said. “This is going to hurt me much more than it hurts you. But the reality of it is when you’re coaching basketball and they’re trying to do what you’re asking them to do and they’re literally — these dudes are like, we’re having to kind of get in between, like stop. But after it’s over, they’re great.

“That’s what you look (for) … fight like heck on this court. Make each other better, compete. You try to beat him every day, he’s trying to beat you every day. If he’s beating you, you’d better get in the gym more because eventually, he’s going to leave you in the dust, yet when it’s over, we’re all together. We’re family. And that’s how they’ve been doing it.”

The Wildcats are so competitive that Calipari began issuing attitude points in an effort to tone down trash talking in practice. The biggest violators are freshmen, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson, while Tyler Herro and returnees PJ Washington and Quade Green have been known to hold their own when it comes to being extremely vocal.

“I have a team that talks — I want a team to talk,” Calipari said. “Like the biggest issue we have, they don’t talk enough. The problem is when they talk at the other team, that’s a problem. That’s an attitude.

“We have a couple guys that start competing, and then they start jawing at each other. They start sassing, as you would say. So now we have attitude points. So if they’re competing and the score is 12-9 and Keldon scores and then starts to chest bump, boop, attitude point, the other team. Now it’s 13-10, and we keep playing. So we have attitude points this year.”

Hagans didn’t deny his role as one of the team’s top trash talkers.

“If we get to talking the other team will get a point or our team will,” he said. “I would say me and Keldon are tied with trash talking. It just comes with my game and picking up the ball, so that’s just what comes with it. I know how to control it so it’s just practice — it’s what comes with it.”

Johnson agreed.

“I’m just a big competitor,” he said. “This is my passion I love basketball. When I’m on the basketball court that’s my happy place. I don’t like losing regardless whether that’s basketball or not. So when I get out there I want to win regardless of the situation. That’s just the person I am; when I get out on the basketball court I’m working towards a bigger goal.”

Although his most vocal competitors are relatively known, Calipari is still looking for a catalyst, a player or a group of players that are head and shoulders about the rest. He’s searching for this year’s version of Shai Gilgeous_Alexander and some potential candidates emerged followed the team’s annual Pro Day last weekend at Rupp Arena.

“Who is going to be that guy?” Calipari said. “No one knew it would be Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) last year. No one knew. I didn’t know. And so it develops. We all know why it was Shai. He was here at 7 a.m. in the morning shooting. He watched a video of himself and other people. He was in the weight room. He was unbelievable. He never missed a class, never missed a tutor, did everything he was supposed to, was wired to say, I’ve just got to get better, and he makes himself a lottery pick and looks like he’s starting for the Clippers

Calipari’s best defender to this point is Hagans, one of the main instigators of trash talking on his squad.

“Ashton is a pit bull mauler on the ball,” Calipari said. “You can play he and Immanuel (Quickley) together. Tyler (Herro) is better than I thought defensively. I thought Keldon (Johnson) would be better than Tyler defensively. I’m not sure of that and our big guys can guard guards.

“We can switch everything. We can scramble around. We can still press — there’s a lot of stuff we’re going to be able to do. Right now I’m just trying to make them so you can guard your man and guard one other guy when you’re guarding your man. Let’s keep the ball out of the lane. Let’s contest shots, and when we close out, let’s make sure we stay in front. Tough twos. No lay-ups, no lobs, tough twos, and that’s what I’m trying to get mentality.”

Aside from the trash talking and lack of a catalyst, the team’s work ethic and competitive spirit are unmatched.

“It’s been crazy,” freshman guard Tyler Herro said. “We have 13 guys and everybody is working hard every day, getting in the gym, practices and being 100 percent competitive. Everybody is trying to make each other better.”

That’s what counts the most, especially in the preseason.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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