Calipari Says Wildcats Need Veterans to Act as Though They’ve Been Starters All Along

Their philosophies could be as diverse as snowflakes, but coaches have so many things in common, including one trait that drives all the great ones: Their desire exceeds their grasp. Coaches always want more, whether it’s victories or the effort that can take them there.

That’s why John Calipari threw down the gauntlet last week and presented his veterans with a demand they might not be able to meet: Lead this team by doing more.

He wants Josh Harrellson, DeAndre’ Liggins and Darius Miller to take the ownership of this team one would expect from veterans.
“I’ve gotta get our juniors and seniors to do more,” Calipari said before the win over Georgia. “They’ve gotta be more of a big part of what we’re doing at the end of games. They’re the veteran guys.”
There’s just one problem: They might not know how.

None of the three has shied away from the prospect, but Harrellson was being frank (as usual) after the win over Georgia when, as he was discussing his role as a senior leader, he said, “I really think I need to step up, but sometimes I think to myself, I want to say, ‘Coach, I’m still like a freshman out here, too. I haven’t played much for any coach since I’ve been here. I’m new to it, too.’ ”

And he’s right. Harrellson appeared in 34 of 36 games (starting two) during the 2008-09 season, his first at Kentucky. But he averaged only 9.3 minutes per game, deferring instead to Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson.

Last season, he settled deeper into the bench as he sat behind outrageously talented freshman Demarcus Cousins and his backup, fellow freshman Daniel Orton. Harrellson appeared in just 22 of 38 games, and his playing time was slashed to four minutes per contest.

Miller averaged 21 minutes in each of his first two seasons as a Wildcat, but last season clearly deferred to Patterson and the freshmen. And in his first season, Miller caught perhaps the lion’s share of the wrath of Billy Gillispie, rendering the experience all but worthless.

The malapropos former coach’s calling cards were condescension and intimidation, and it clearly didn’t work on Miller. I’ll never forget a practice session we were allowed to videotape for the documentary, “Inside Kentucky Basketball: All Access.”

During a drill, Miller was in the corner and tried to throw an entry pass to Harrellson in the low post. The angle of the pass was low and Harrellson fumbled it away. Gillisipie exploded with anger, upbraiding Miller for taking the wrong angle with his entry pass. He snatched a basketball and fired it at Miller’s feet, barking, “Catch the ball, Darius! Catch the ball, Darius!” Each time Gillispie threw a ball, he put an empty hand to his side so a manager quickly could hand him another, ready for launch. And each time, mocking him with the same challenge: “Catch the ball, Darius!” Miller never had a chance.

There were other stories about how Gillispie mistreated Miller during the SEC Tournament, but none was confirmed and Miller won’t talk about it. But the word got out that if Gillispie had returned to UK the following season, Miller was gone.

Liggins, like all of his teammates, struggled with Gillispie as well, chafing at his coaching style. It seems so long ago that Liggins refused to enter a game during a tournament in Las Vegas. A five-star recruit, Liggins appeared to be headed for a transfer, prompting Gillispie to back off and give the freshman more leeway than he did some of the older players. But Liggins was clearly unhappy. “My first year, you got held back,” he said. “Now I’m doing better, but I’m still trying to do what Coach Cal tells me to do.”

He and Calipari misconnected at first. Liggins sat out the first semester of last season, but, once he did find playing time, endeared himself to his coach with his all-out hustle.
“It’s kinda tough,” he said. “My first two years, I didn’t play much. Last year I did but we had other guys on the team. This year, me taking on that role, it’s kind of hard for me. I’m adjusting to it but I like to lead by example.”

None of the three vets has taken the path to leadership that most upperclassmen do: Ingratiate yourself as a freshman, expand on your role as a sophomore, seize more ownership as a junior and, if you happen to be around as a senior, lead by example and earn the respect of your younger peers.

Of course, that’s not Calipari’s problem. They’re veterans, and he needs him to act the part. And it’s not as though they haven’t played basketball before. Each has played significant minutes this season, and, for the most part, they’ve produced.

“You tell me,” Calipari said. “Has Darius ever played better in his life? Has DeAndre’ ever played better in his life? Has Josh ever played better in his life? These guys are playing about as well as they’ve ever played, but I want more, because I think they’re capable of more.
“So when you say they haven’t ever been in this role, they haven’t, but it’s time for them to step up. You’re better than you’ve ever been in your life. Now, let’s do this on the road, and we’re relying on you.”
According to Calipari, what’s needed from them is simple.

“Make plays,” he said. “Make a block, get a ball, grab a rebound. Dive on the floor, take a charge. What are you doing to help us win? Or are you sitting there saying, Let’s hope one of these freshmen make a play,’ which isn’t fair to them.”

Harrellson understands. He says he realizes that while he might not have the resume’ of a Patrick Patterson, he still needs to help the younger guys benefit from whatever his checkered years have to offer.

“I don’t know what to tell them, because I’m new to it, too,” he said, “but when (Calipari) says something, I’m going to go out there and tell (the freshmen) something. I just try to make up something.

“I’ve been around Coach long enough to know what he wants out of us, and what he expects.”

There aren’t a lot of upperclassmen on this team, and as long as Calipari is the coach at Kentucky, there probably never will be. But whatever players do make it to their third and fourth years, whether they’re the focal point of the team or not, they need to act as though they are.

Calipari wants the upperclassmen to know he’s relying on them, just as much as he is the new guys with the one-and-done potential.

“If those freshmen all play well, great,” Calipari said. “If they don’t play well, we’re fine. It ain’t going to be a 30-point game but at least we’ve got a chance to win anyway, because you guys are playing. That’s the message I’m trying to give ‘em.”

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games and periodically anchors basketball coverage on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)

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