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By LARRY VAUGHT
When Kentucky fans look back at 2012, they’ll have to remember the remarkable basketball season that coach John Calipari’s team had that ended with UK’s eighth national championship.
Anthony Davis swept most of the preseason awards, was the top pick in the NBA draft and played on the gold-medal winning Olympic team. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the second pick in the draft and Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague were also a first-round picks. Two other Cats — Darius Miller and Doron Lamb — were drafted in the second round.
Calipari convinced Nerlens Noel, one of the top two recruits, to sign with the Wildcats in the spring to assure UK of a fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class. Then in November he signed five players — Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis — that could give the Cats another No. 1 class.
No wonder Calipari called it a “heck of year for this program” Monday during his press gathering before tonight’s game against Eastern Michigan that concludes non-conference play for UK.
But then Calipari added a little nugget for UK fans to savor.
“Let’s hope that this year becomes as rewarding. And rewarding is all relevant. To me, this could be at the end of the day my most rewarding year as a coach. That’s what I’m hoping for,” he said.
More rewarding than last year? More rewarding than the Final Four team two years ago?
After all, UK is 8-4 after Saturday’s loss at Louisville and not in the top 25 of the AP rankings.
So how could this be the most rewarding year?
“When you go through a season, you don’t judge it just by wins and losses. You don’t judge it just by championships. You judge it by what was accomplished by a team and how far they’ve come,” said Calipari. “That team two years ago, that was a rewarding year for me. For me to walk away from that, I could say I gave every ounce of everything I had and these kids responded and they benefited. Not just me benefiting, they benefited.
“This, where were are right now and where we could be, individual players and as a team, this could end up being my most rewarding year. That’s my whole mindset. I don’t think about anything else. It’s not like, ‘Well, what if this happens and we don’t do as well.’ I don’t do that. That doesn’t enter my mind. My mind is this is going to, this kid is going to be great and its going to be my most rewarding year as a coach. I don’t know what that means at the end, numbers wise, but that’s my hope.”
Maybe it is showing in his personality, too. Point guard Ryan Harrow said the coach has been more “encouraging” in recent workouts. Perhaps that’s because he senses this fragile team might need kindness more than butt-kicking right now.
“Here’s what happens when you work with kids individually as a head coach. You help build their confidence, because now you’re working directly with them, but you also build your confidence in them,” the UK coach said. “Do you know what I’m saying?
“And also now, you’re kind of invested in their success. So now when they succeed, you’re invested in it. So it’s a lot of things. I wish I had time to work with every player individually, and most of them come here with that idea. But it’s just hard. You zero in on one, you do your stuff with him, then you zero in on another. It’s hard to do 12 guys.”
Calipari says highly touted players don’t want to change, but his job is to figure out how to change them and make them better players.
“My job changes every year. ‘Why would you say your job changes?’ Cause every team I have needs something different. This team needs something different than last (year’s). I’m coaching different than I did a year ago,” Calipari said. “That team didn’t need the things that this team needs. And this team, there’s things that team needed this team doesn’t need. So every year I coach, I have a different job.”
“It would be nice having a lesson plan every year for eight straight years, going in knowing what my lesson plan is, going in two days before it starts and just, ‘Let’s get going.’ But it’s the choices you make when you’re trying to make this about these kids.”