LEXINGTON, Ky. – One of the fiercest, most intense games of this college basketball season happened on a Tuesday afternoon in late November. The teams played in a gym with a handful of spectators, no stands, no scouts and no television crew. Nine of the players on the court had made the McDonald’s All-America team in high school. All 10 will likely play in the NBA. It could have been a spectacle. Here, they call it practice. Did you gawk at Duke-Wisconsin? You should have seen Kentucky vs. Kentucky.
Karl-Anthony Towns, a projected lottery pick, had a dunk attempt pinned against the backboard by Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot junior also ticketed for the top 10. Aaron Harrison (a top-10 recruit in 2013) swiped a pass intended for Alex Poythress (a top-10 recruit in 2012). Tyler Ulis, one of the best defensive guards in the country, pestered Andrew Harrison, one of the best point guards, the entire length of the floor.
John Calipari has coached the only two 38-win teams in college hoops history. He coached another team that won its first 27 games. He won the 2012 men’s national championship and made it to the title game last season. He has never coached a team like this year’s Kentucky, a top-ranked juggernaut comprised of two five-man platoons, a system Calipari employed for the first time because he had too much talent to use otherwise.
The 11-0 Wildcats have outscored opponents by 28.2 points per game while holding them to 30.4 percent shooting. Experts have raised the possibility of an undefeated season, although Calipari dismisses those thoughts out of hand. They have received scant competition during games. They find it every day against each other, internal competition that strengthens the team and defines the program.
“When you watch them play against each other, you’re like, Holy [smokes], these are two teams,” Calipari said. “These are two really good teams. But they’re different. Getting 10 like that – amazing.”
Calipari believes 10 or 15 games this year – roughly a quarter of the schedule – will test his players more than a standard practice. “The best way for the NBA to evaluate Kentucky is to go to practice,” ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said. “You’re getting better every day because you’re competing in practice.” Calipari scrimmages more than ever before, using the same teams that switch off during games. One platoon wears blue. One wears white. The loser runs.
Back on that Tuesday in late November, after a drill, Calipari blew his whistle, and one of the best games in college basketball sprung back into action.
“We’re going live,” Calipari said. “Here we go.”
Just before 2:30 p.m., Calipari had walked into Kentucky’s film room, a small auditorium down the hall from the practice court, and placed a Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup on a podium. His mind doesn’t do days off, so he had spent Monday – a rest day for his players – reading in search of motivation and messages. The night before, he had sent players a text message. “I am so excited for tomorrow’s practice,” it read. “I don’t even think I’ll sleep tonight. :)”
Players filled four rows of seats, and Calipari launched into the meeting without preamble. “Who’s becoming a defensive playmaker?” he asked. He showed miscues and highlights from their 58-38 victory two days earlier over Providence. His voice remained steady, even as he prodded players for lazy plays and leaving 3-point shooters open.
He moved to a short primer on the offense employed by No. 6 Texas, which they would play in three days, on a Friday night in Rupp Arena. He showed sequences of Texas running a play called “Elbow.” The point guard passed to a power forward at the corner of the foul line, which set up a pass to the block. “If you can guard this play,” Calipari said, “they won’t score more than 50.”
Calipari cut short the scouting session and focused on his own team. The projector screen rolled up and revealed a number on the chalk board: 60. The Wildcats had been shooting 60 shots per game.
“We need to get 70,” Calipari told players. “Why?”
“Because everybody eats,” one player replied from the front row.
“Everybody eats,” Calipari said.
The point had been made in the open. Calipari wants to win badly, but he views preparing his players for the NBA as his first priority, and he had 10 draft resumes to augment. The Wildcats needed to play at a fast pace in order for all the players to accumulate gaudy number. For his players to believe in his system, they needed to trust him.
Since the summer, Calipari had shifted his focus to a unique, welcome challenge: How could he accommodate 10 potential NBA players. He brought in his annual haul of blue-chip prospects, expecting some combination of Poythress, the Harrison twins and Cauley-Stein would enter the NBA draft. They all returned to school.
“We bring in the guys that they were going to replace,” Calipari said. “They were replacing them, and they came back. Well, now I got 10. What do I do?”
Calipari knew he couldn’t play them in a standard rotation, because constant substitution would spoil rhythm. Over the summer, at a series of exhibition games in the Bahamas, he hatched an experiment. Calipari created two five-man units, playing them in four- or five-minute bursts – line changes for basketball. Calipari had never tried it before, but he resolved to use the platoons in the regular season.
Calipari called Joe Gibbs, Mike Tomlin and Bill Parcells to ask them how to managed two units – offense and defense, for football coaches – into a cohesive team. They told him the same thing: Show them how one side helps the other as often as possible. Be harder on the more successful unit.
“It’s that 10 guys are willing to share minutes,” Calipari said. “It’s not 10 schmoes. I’ve had coaches call me. ‘I did it. Here’s how I did it.’ But you didn’t do it with 10 NBA players. You did it with guys who are going to be in school for four years and then go get jobs. They’re happy. This is different. It’s also different – how about their parents? Would you want your son to play 20 minutes if he had NBA potential?”
Every Kentucky player has an NBA draft resume to build, but none averages more than 25 minutes. Cauley-Stein leads the team with 10.7 points per game, one of only two players in double figures. And they still embrace the system, cheering wildly for one another from the bench.
Calipari explained to his players that the platoon will work to their advantage. It reduces pressure by spreading the burden – a bad individual game will be overlooked more easily when there are nine other players to discuss. They can play harder than ever before, meaning scouts will only see them at their best. In the NBA, Calipari reasons, they’ll have to seek out baskets rather than having plays called for them.
“If they know I have their back and I’m about them, they’ll be about each other,” Calipari said. “They’ll trust what I’m saying. They’ll understand that I’m going to be real. I’m not going to BS you. I’ll love you, but you got to love each other. You got to do this for each other. And Willie Cauley had the greatest thing after Kansas: ‘We trust coach, and we trust each other’. That’s the whole reason how this works.”
With an open position on his staff, Calipari added Joel Justus as his director of analytics, a new role designed for the new system. One of his duties is to alter each player’s stats as if he played 34 minutes a game — prorating to show the possibility of what their production would look like if given more playing time. The stat sheet he creates is placed in every player’s locker.
“I’m doing this to sell,” Calipari said, pointing to an adjusted stat sheet he had already sent to the NBA scouting bureau. “That’s why I’m doing it. Now, there are other things I’m doing with the analytics that are helping me make decisions. But the major point of it was to sell our kids what they’re doing in 20 minutes and how efficient it is and all those things. I hired the guy for our players.”
Still, at his team meeting, Calipari wanted more shots. Calipari pointed at one word – “FLY” – written on the white board to further emphasize his objective. He then moved on to share the results of his reading from the day before: The traits world-class teams share.
“I’m not saying good teams,” Calipari told the players. “I’m saying world-class teams.”
Calipari told them world-class teams make few mistakes – he had written “no unforced errors,” on the board. Beneath that, he had written: “Thrash opponents. Compete against yourself.”
“They thrash opponents,” Calipari said, his voice rising. “They don’t try to play with them. They THRASH their opponents. There ain’t no scraping through. They’re competing against themselves. You’re not playing against world class teams, because there ain’t that many.”
The players kept their eyes on him. Don’t judge your performance based on the final score, he told them. Judge it based on how much higher it could go.
“Does it get you thinking about, ‘Let’s be the best defensive team ever?’ ” Calipari asked. “Anybody awake? Does that move you?”
“I have been waiting for this practice,” Calipari announced. “Aw yeah. Aw [shoot]. I’ve been waiting for 48 hours. Let’s go have a ball. Let’s get better.”
Before he scrimmaged, Calipari created a drill to encourage faster offense, to find those 10 extra shots. Four offensive players would run at two defensive players, and two more defensive players would trail the fast break.
“If you can’t score four-on-two, you suck,” Calipari said. “If it gets to four-on-four, you suck.”
The first three possessions produced a bricked jumper, a missed lay-up and a side-rim three-pointer. Calipari blasted his whistle.
“What does this prove right now?” Calipari shouted.
“We suck,” a few players muttered.
“We suck!” Calipari replied.
Calipari worries sometimes that his own team’s defense makes them hesitant on offense: It’s so hard to score in practice against Kentucky’s long-armed frontcourt that the frustration carries into games. Towns, a 6-foot-11 forward with the most potential on the team, developed the habit of fading away.
Calipari stopped the scrimmage with frequent whistle tweets. He used several of the pauses to cajole Towns for not following his shot. “We’re not going to win playing at the highest level playing the way you play,” he said during one break, his voice remaining steady.
Finally, Towns powered a lay-up through the block attempt of Dakari Johnson, a muscular, 7-foot sophomore. Calipari blew the whistle.
“If you can do that against Dakari,” Calipari asked Towns, “why do you not do it in a game against a lesser player?”
And that is what makes Kentucky truly scary this season, just as much as their absurd collection of talent. They are already better than everyone else, and the gap should only grow as they steel themselves against one another each day in practice.
Against Texas, Kentucky would show it still had room to grow on offense. They would manage just 56 shots, and sloppy play would lead to a tie score at halftime. But their impossibly rangy, athletic defense would enable them to play mediocre and beat the sixth-ranked team in the country by 12. The coach’s guarantee about stopping “Elbow” nearly came true, as well — the Longhorns, managed just 51 points. Cauley-Stein would score 21, steal five and block three, so Calipari would let him play 33 minutes.
The platoon system suffered a blow weeks later, when Poythress tore the ACL in his left knee during a practice. On Saturday, in their first game without him, Calipari used nine players and Kentucky throttled North Carolina, 84-70. Players wore warm-up T-shirts emblazoned with “Roar for 22,” Poythress’s number.
Having to balance a deeper collection of talent than ever before, Calipari has stressed unity, playing for the same cause. At the end of practice back in November, players joined in a half-circle around Calipari, arms thrown around one another’s shoulders. Eight national title banners hung from a side wall. Blown-up posters of former Wildcats currently in the NBA ringed the gym. Another scrimmage — a showcase unseen by the public and embraced by the program — awaited the next day.
“Good job, guys,” Calipari said. “Good job.”