On Saturday afternoon, Kentucky defeated Florida 76-68 in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. In the 24 hours leading up to the game, CBSSports.com was given an all-access look at the team and its preparation for a big SEC home game. Over three parts, Matt Jones will detail the team’s activities, beginning with practice the day before through Saturday's game. Preparation varies from team to team, but Kentucky's process is similar to many other programs. We begin with Kentucky’s practice Friday afternoon. Parts 2 and 3 will run later this week.
A walk onto the basketball floor of the Joe Craft practice facility on the University of Kentucky campus gives one an immediate sense of the enormity of Kentucky basketball. Hanging on the wall are seven banners, one representing each national championship. There are no pictures of the coaches over the years or references to the players who have worn the Kentucky uniform. Just seven banners, showcasing each time Kentucky has reached its ultimate goal and cut down the nets.
This year’s Kentucky team seems unlikely to add number eight. Playing on the heels of one of the more beloved Wildcat teams of recent memory, this year’s UK group has not quite captured the Commonwealth’s imagination. With no John Wall to overwhelm with talent, Demarcus Cousins to manhandle the opposition or Patrick Patterson to provide veteran leadership, this UK team has struggled, losing 6 of 7 SEC road games. John Calipari regularly utilizes only six players, three super-talented freshmen and three veterans with little experience. That combination was 19-8 heading into Saturday’s game, good enough to be ranked in the Top 25, but not up to the standards of the seven banners.
The afternoon before every home game, Kentucky has a full practice, usually running between 90 minutes and 2 hours. The opponent this Saturday is Florida, meaning the vast majority of the Friday practice will be focused on preparation for the Gators. Usually at this time of year, Calipari says his practices are about execution and repetition, but this season has been different.
“I have had to spend much more time teaching with this group. I actually have to teach too much for this time of year, but this group is so young, I don’t have a choice.”
Kentucky follows a simple plan for game preparation. One coach, in this case Assistant John Robic, is in charge of breaking down the other team’s film and creating a game plan. The plan focuses on the team’s tendencies and personnel, and includes a few examples of common plays they run. Then, before final practice leading up to game day, Robic meets with the other coaches who will run as the scout team for the opposition. Robic calls the group his "starting five" and at Kentucky, that means Robic, his fellow assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and Kenny Payne, along with graduate assistants Wayne Turner and Brandon Weems. These five spend a day learning the Gators offense and personnel so as to become Florida for the next day’s practice. Each game means digesting a new set system so it can be taught as simplistically as possible to the young Wildcats the next day.
On this Friday, as Kentucky comes on the court to begin practice, John Calipari injects a message of confidence into the group. "We can beat these guys. Florida is a good team, but they also lost at home to South Carolina. We can do this. I believe in us. I believe in you guys."
That message of affirmation has been one that Calipari has reinforced all season. Unlike previous groups that had what Calipari calls an "internal swagger," this group has required much more care. He told me afterwards, "I spend a lot of time reminding these guys that I believe in them and that they are capable of being as good as anybody in the country. I normally haven't had to do that, but with this group I do."
Calipari tells his team that the secret to beating Florida is simple. "This thing is going to come down to transition, crazy three-point baskets that we rebound and defending the pick and roll. We limit those things, we win."
For the next ten minutes, the team works on these keys. They begin with a drill designed to force defenders to fight through the pick and roll. Players guarding the ball are led into a large pad held by one of the assistant coaches and take bumps designed to silumate what they will receive from Florida’s big man duo of Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. When junior Deandre Liggins makes a weak attempt to fight through the screen, Calipari blows his whistle and reminds the team what's at stake: "We have a game tomorrow on national television! Do you care or not?"
Liggins' focus remains a concern for the Kentucky coach throughout the practice. At one point, after Liggins grabs a rebound, he fires a circus shot at the hoop rather than tossing it back to the point guard for a new set. Calipari walks toward the player and says in a powerful tone, “Hey, Deandre, this ain't for funsies! Don’t mess around! You want me to tell those pro scouts sitting over there that you don't care?"
Pro scouts watching practice is a constant at Kentucky. The majority of practices are watched by at least one pro scout and that number increases the day before a game. Players are aware that it is not only a chance to warm up for their next college game, but also an unofficial audition for the next level. For many of these scouts, what they view in practice is equally, if not more, important to what they see in a game and thus focus is imperative not only for the team, but the individual players’ futures as well.
Whether in practice or games, Kentucky freshman Doron Lamb has had consistent issues with focus and effort all season. The latest example occurred in the previous game at Arkansas when his lack of consistent effort led to him sitting nearly the entire second half and overtime. This is clearly on Calipari’s mind early in Friday’s practice as he notices Lamb running a step slow in an early drill. Calipari waits until all attention is focused in his direction and makes clear, "I need one coach following Doron at all times today because he stops playing. Someone follow him and don’t let him stop once today."
With that focus attained, the coaching staff shifts to Florida and perfecting the game plan for Saturday. When the two teams played earlier in Gainesville, offensive rebounding was the difference. The Gators’ Chandler Parsons got two crucial putbacks late in the game, when Kentucky was unable to box out from a zone defense. But Calipari again stresses his theme of affirmation, telling his team that the problems in Gainesville were not totally their fault. "Last game we lost because they would take crazy threes and Parsons would rebound from the off side. And you know what, that's not your fault because we hadn't worked on rebounding on that rotation. But it shouldn't happen after today."
Stopping Florida, and Parsons in particluar, becomes the theme for the rest of the practice. Calipari says Parsons is the key to the game and the coaches work in detail on where they want him to get the ball and how to guard him once he has it.
"We want Parsons to fade and shoot outside shots. He can beat us inside, so if he gets the ball in the paint, it is probably too late," says Calipari as the Cats work on denying Parsons the ball whenever inside the three point line, while also placing a spy defender to shadow him on the off side of the basket for every 3-point shot.
Parsons' role is played by little-used reserve Jon Hood. Hood and fellow benchmate Stacey Poole have been the talk of the UK fan base in recent weeks, with many wondering why, with a bench this thin, the duo doesn’t see more playing time. Whether Calipari has heard those questions or not, he is quick to addresses them in practice. After Hood makes a mental error on defense, Calipari growls, "Yesterday you were terrific in here and I say, YES, I can put him in the game. And now you come out here and do this and I say, no I can't." Then when Poole goofs off for a second on the sideline, Calipari snaps and says, "people call and ask, why doesn't Stacey Poole play? That's why!"
Calipari's frustration comes from desperation. He is comfortable with the six players in his normal rotation of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, Deandre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. But Calipari desperately needs some other player to step on the court and be able to give solid minutes. He admits that "so far this year, the bench has not been my friend," but even this late in the season, he is not ready to give up. After one play in which the second team executes better than the starters, he challenges his reserve team: "That’s it! Now one of you step up and force me to go to my bench more!"
Unfortunately for Calipari, the player he most desperately wants to see challenge for playing time is reserve center Eloy Vargas. While Calipari never has said it publicly, Vargas' lack of development clearly is a major disappointment and hinders this team's progress. Ironically, Vargas is a transfer from Florida and Calipari hopes this game will motivate him to another level. "You went down there last time and played well because you wanted to show them you could play. Now do it again. Show them how good you are!"
A minute later, Vargas chooses not to dunk on an open attempt under the rim and misses a soft layup attempt. Calipari shows exasperation greater that at any point during the day screaming, "Eloy you are standing straight up and down! You cant get to the rim when you are standing there straight up with no bend! Are you already scared about tomorrow?" He walks away shaking his head as Vargas’s eyes never leave the floor below.
In the final third of practice, the focus shifts to the specifics of Florida's personnel. Calipari implores the players to remember who they are guarding at all times. He reminds them that they want Parsons shooting from behind the 3-point line, while shadowing the other guards on the team. "Make the (Kenny) Boynton kid take tough shots. He will make some, but keep making him take tough ones and it will work out. The (Erving) Walker kid is 6 foot tall. If you let him get inside and score on us, then we don't deserve to win anyway."
The practice ends with individual shooting by the guards and post work by the big men. It is then that the NBA scouts show some excitement as UK student-assistant coach Enes Kanter begins to work directly in front of them. Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA because of a violation of amateurism in his native Turkey. But his presence on the UK practice court is irresistible to everyone in attendance. He projects as a potential Top 5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and a cloud of mystery surrounds his development. As he posts up against Kentucky centers Harrellson and Vargas, his tremendous ability and potential is striking. He displays post moves that the UK players have no ability to stop. His moves likely are as good as those displayed by the best overall offensive big man in college basketball. His up and under, hook shot and 10 foot jumper already are polished and he puts the ball in the basket at will. Assistant coach Kenny Payne is left with nothing more to do except coach Vargas to move his feet quicker, but the mismatch in ability is clear.
Finally, Calipari then calls the team to the center of the court for one final message. He begins by saying that even with the loud crowd and tough opponent, the players must keep their heads. He reminds Deandre Liggins, who received two crucial technicals during the past two UK road games, that he needs to "stop showing out so much" after a bad call and focus instead on his defense. Calipari tells his team not to worry about score or time of the game, but "just play and if we play the way want, the result will take care of itself."
Before dismissal, he addresses Darius Miller individually for the first time. The quiet forward, who bears the weight of heightened expectations due to his status as a Kentucky state high school legend, is one of the most talented players on the team. However he has been prone to disappearing in games and his lack of aggressiveness is a constant issue. Calipari focuses directly on Miller and says, "you can create a matchup problem for this team. They don’t have anyone to guard you, so you can be the difference." As he speaks, he looks Miller directly in the eye and Miller shakes his head in agreement.
Practice is then dismissed and the players exit, with the exception of likely freshman All-American Brandon Knight who stays for his usual post-practice shooting. Calipari comes to the side and greets those in attendance, including CBS announcer Dan Bonner, who is in town calling the game and has watched the entire practice. After speaking with Calipari for a moment, Bonner waits until he walks away and says to me, “Calipari is a piece of work. But as you can see today, he sure is good at what he does.”
Matt Jones is a college basketball blogger for CBSSports.com and founder of kentuckysportsradio.com.