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By LARRY VAUGHT
Because he sensed his team was not having fun, Kentucky coach John Calipari turned to an unusual tactic Tuesday night to get his team ready to play Vanderbilt.
Coming off road losses at Florida and Tennessee, Calipari turned to dodgeball. He paired his players against the staff — and joked that he had to put on a helmet because all the players wanted to throw and hit him. The coach joked he had a couple of players he wanted to throw at as well.
But mainly he wanted his team to have fun.
“You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing. You’ve got to enjoy this environment. It’s a privilege to be here. It not a burden to be here and trying to get them to do that,” said Calipari after his team beat Vanderbilt 74-70 Wednesday to maintain its third-place spot in the Southeastern Conference standings.
He thought dodgeball would ease the tension and let the players have fun.
“I was running. I can’t throw like I used to. I got hit a couple times,” the coach said. “And I thought I was throwing it hard but it kind of like looped and they just caught mine.”
He said the players won because Willie Cauley-Stein, who had a career-high 20 points Wednesday, had an “absolute cannon” throwing the ball as did junior Jon Hood.
“We just were talking, and what can we do? We’ve got to lighten this mood up. These guys are with the weight of the world on their shoulders, let’s do something. We’re going to play whiffle ball Friday. I promise they will lose Friday,” Calipari said.
Freshmen Archie Goodwin isn’t so sure about that.
“We played whiffle ball back in the summer. I’m pretty good,” he said.
But Goodwin said dodgeball or whiffle ball are about more than the game.
“It was about us going out and having fun. It was a chance for us to take a step back from basketball and relax and have fun as a team. That’s what we did, it was just something for us to get together and it was a bonding moment for us,” Goodwin said. “We are just a lot more focused and tuned in and trying to do everything for our team. That’s what we have been really focused on these last couple of weeks in practice. It’s another thing that can help us come closer together and another bonding thing for us.”
Cauley-Stein just wanted Tuesday night’s walk-through to be over so he could go spend time with his brother who was visiting.
“Then he said dodgeball and I was like no I want to stay and play. I haven’t played since high school. And we ended up staying for an hour,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s just getting your mind off stuff. (Coach Calipari) always talks about even when you go to a free throw you always have a negative thought like, ‘Oh I’m going to miss this shot,’ and if you say a prayer or go to a happy place it wipes everything out. That’s kind of what it did. Oh dodgeball, right when he said dodgeball it lightened up the mood.”
Point guard Ryan Harrow said Calipari’s surprise was “fun time with the team” even if he didn’t get to hit Calipari with a ball.
“I didn’t get him though. He was trying to get me, too. So I ended up catching his ball and he got out, so I guess that was good,” Harrow said.