By LARRY VAUGHT
John Calipari likes his team, but he knows getting back to a Final Four for a third straight year will be hard for Kentucky.
“This is one where it will not be as easy as it looks about figuring out how we play. That will be the challenge of it,” he said.
However, don’t think that frustrates Calipari as he prepares to put together a new team again.
“That is exciting. People say to me, ‘Doesn’t it drive you crazy to have a new team?’ No, it is exciting. Think about it. You wake up every day and your whole thought is how do I make this better for these guys, how do I figure this stuff out,” the UK coach said. “Guys staying with you three years … they don’t learn to hate you after one or two (years), but they do after three or four.”
Here are some of his other thoughts on the upcoming season.
Question: What impact will being able to work with the players in the summer even on a limited basis make for your team?
Calipari: “There are times when the more information you get, the more confused you are. That’s kind of where I am with this group. Some of the questions I had, now I have more questions. One of them being, how much can we play two big guys (Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein) together. It’s funny, I said to (former UK) coach (Joe) Hall that I have got to talk to you about this two big-guy thing. He said, ‘I’ve got some good stuff for you.’ I have got to figure out how to do it or do we play three big guys (together).
“How much does Archie (Goodwin) play the point? If he is at the point, he is a lot like Tyreke Evans. With Alex (Poythress), the question is how close can we get his motor to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Can it be in the same ballpark? Will Julius (Mays), who makes shots, be able to do it them in this environment when he is not playing 35 minutes (per game) yet you still have to make shots?
“We are going to play fast. We are going to play the dribble-drive. How we get into the dribble-drive has changed every single year I have been here. We are going to play defense. Will we play some zone this year? I can say yes, and the chances are slim and none. But I have talked about a 2-3 with two big guys on the wings. Then maybe a 3-2 with two bigs down low which means they cover the corners and those two can. Maybe a Kyle (Wiltjer) or Alex in the middle covering the low post. There are different ways we can do it, but we could be longer than last year.”
Question: What is the challenge of trying to repeat as national champion with basically a new team ?
Calipari: “We have already talked. That thing is done. None of these guys were even a part of that. We are worried about being best team we can. Does that mean we will be better than last year? Maybe. What does being better than last year mean? That means we can have a really good team and means the team is really close and that means shared sacrifice is the No. 1 thing in the team. But we are not worried. That thing is over and done.
“This is a new team. We don’t know literally know how we are going to play yet. That is the disadvantage I said where you have all these teams who know how they are going to play. They have the same teams back and can just touch things up, add a couple of guys to see if they can get better and build on a base. We have no base. Thank goodness we could do some this summer. I don’t know if I had a senior team, junior team if I would have liked the summer stuff.”
Question: Have you reached out to other coaches who have won a national title for advice?
Calipari: “First of all, you are at Kentucky. You can ask a guy that sat in the (UK coaching) seat. This is a different animal. But I did sit down and talk with (Alabama football coach) Nick Saban. We spent an hour talking about 2010 and what happened in 2011 and now it is 2012 and what are you going to do differently. It was really good stuff that he talked about. The difference is he had really good returning players. He said he had guys on the 2010 team now that are not letting that happen (again). A lot of it is you take your eye off the ball. As a group, you step back.
“We talk about drinking the poison all the time, but this is different here. We have a brand new team. It’s not like they won it and how do you guard against complacency? How about we change the whole team and no one was on the team. That’s one way to change it. The only thing I can do, which I was that I do, is that I am worried about this team and how good we can be. When we lost six (games) in the league (two years ago) I kept telling all you guys I liked my team and we would be fine. We were losing by a point. We were losing by two points. I liked my team. What ended up happening is that if we played better against Connecticut that day, we would have won the national title. I kept telling you there was no team out there that scares me.
“I don’t know enough about the teams coming up. I do know the first two teams (Maryland and Duke) we are playing will give us problems. They have veteran teams that there whole summer has been thinking about Kentucky. Both of those teams. We could go 0-2 and still have a really good team. We don’t even know how we are going to play. It will be interesting.”
Question: What did winning the national title mean to you?
Calipari: “You think it meant that much to me. It meant more to my fans and my family and the people who want to say that I am this or that or that I am better than this or that guy. But the reality of it is that the only time, and you will think this is crazy, but there was a video we did about the last three years and I watched the video and it kind of touched me like ‘Wow.’ That would be it.
“But it wasn’t that we had won a national title. You kind of forget that play against Mississippi State (in the SEC Tournament). But when I saw it, it just goose bumped me. Or John Wall’s first (game-winning) shot. We could have lost that (season-opening game). We shouldn’t have won that game. I can’t even remember the Stanford stuff (in Cancun). We had no business (winning). If Demarcus (Cousins) had not fouled out, we would not have won the game. He had to foul out for us to win. Then go back to Brandon Knight and we play at Louisville and that is where Josh (Harrellson) has his coming out party and then the shots we made.
“How the heck did we beat North Carolina and Ohio State (in the NCAA Tournament (in 2011))? Tell me how we beat those two. Are you crazy. And then we should have won the national title. Then last year the stuff … so you look back on that in its entirety and just say I don’t want to think about that because we have other stuff.”