LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Kentucky’s basketball season opener is in the books and if there’s one good thing that came out of it, it’s this: UK fans, at least for the time being, can stop comparing this year’s team to last year’s national champion.
Mixed among the lobs, putback slams and blocked shots were enough mistakes to fill John Calipari’s video files to overflowing. If only his team was as sharp as its coach, who was in mid-season form in the media room following Kentucky’s 93-61 win over Northwood.
Seahawks coach Rollie Massimino was treated to a rousing ovation by the crowd at Rupp Arena, site of his greatest victory – Villanova’s upset win over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game. Calipari spoke after the game about how Massimino now is coaching the top-ranked team in NAIA, with a chance to win another national title.
“Would be kind of neat,” Calipari said. “I don't know how many coaches have won the NCAA Division I national title and the NAIA national championship. I know there's a few that have won the NIT and the NCAA.”
When informed by an intrepid reporter (ahem) that both Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall had won NIT and NCAA titles during their respective tenures, Calipari VERY quickly said, “So have I,” with laughter erupting among the media.
It was amazing he had any voice left to crack jokes and critique his team. By his own admission, Calipari cranked his sideline bellowing into overdrive.
“We're way away from being where we need to be, but the guys couldn't stop today because I was screaming the whole time,” he said. “I'm exhausted right now. I can't coach that way. “
But the need was there because of basic arithmetic – 13 plus six plus three plus eight. Calipari played at least 13 different lineups, which included six first-year players who figure to see extended minutes this season; they’ll go again in their next (and final) exhibition three days later against Transylvania; and in eight days they play their regular-season opener in Brooklyn against Maryland.
“What's today?” he asked. “What day is this? Thursday. In a week we're on national television, and we've got to figure what in the heck are you going to play, 72 lineups against those… I don't know. I'm trying to figure this team out.”
Much of Calipari’s multi-decibel instruction was directed at freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who led the Wildcats in points (22), shots taken (12) and turnovers (five).
“I think we handled it well,” Goodwin said of Calipari’s full-throated urging. “It was our first time seeing him get that riled up. He takes every game seriously and we see that. It’s just about us improving every time we step out on the court. We know what he expects from us. He never tries to put us down, just constructive criticism.”
Whatever Calipari yelled during the first half and in the newly-renovated locker room at halftime (presumably at a lower vocal level), it must have worked, because the Cats’ defense was more intense after intermission.
“It is more fun playing that way,” said Willie Cauley-Stein. The freshman forward had two blocked shots and three steals to go along with eight points and nine rebounds. “When you are playing defense like that, and you can get fast breaks more and scoring more, and it just kills the other team; it takes their heart away. That is how he wants us to play because then they have no chance to come back.”
One of Cauley-Stein’s blocks was the result of an ill-advised attempt to drive the baseline by Northwood’s diminutive guard, 5-foot-2 Tyrone Davis. Cauley-Stein blocked it flat-footed – with his elbow. Easiest block ever? Cauley-Stein hedged.
What could have been easier? I asked.
“Maybe when I was playing my little cousin,” he said with a grin. More laughter.
It was that kind of night, especially when Massimino was finishing with his turn on the podium. A Louisville-based TV reporter who hails from Philadelphia playfully asked him, If you were Kentucky’s coach, how would you coach all this talent? Massimino recoiled from the query and then laughingly responded, “I WOULDN’T LOSE A GAME FOR FIVE YEARS!”
And after thanking everyone again, Massimino stepped off the podium and stumbled over one of the tripods anchoring a speaker, but quickly righted himself. “Pretty good for 78 years old!” he cracked.
It was a great move, but not the best line. That came from the home team’s coach who, after informing us that he, too, had won the NIT and the NCAA, was asked about his team’s effort.
“I didn’t hear a word you said. I was laughing too hard (in his mind, apparently). What was the question?”
It might have sounded as though he was having fun with us, but Calipari admitted to exhaustion – not just his vocal cords, but his brain. That’s what happens when you start over, from scratch.
“This is REALLY scratch,” he said. “This is scratch scratch.”
But having re-built before, there must be a road map to excellence.
“I just scream more, I guess,” he said. “I don't know. I'm tired, because I'm thinking all the time. My whole day is, ‘How do I do this?’
And he has less than eight days to figure it out. Clock’s ticking…
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)