Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

June 13, 2013

Calipari sensing historic rebound

Coach says last year’s team may have ‘overachieved’

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

CANNONSBURG — No team has ever gone from NCAA champion to NIT first-round loser to NCAA champion in the span of three seasons.

So why won’t Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari shy away from the idea of a perfect season?

“Why not try to coach an undefeated team? Because they say it can’t be done ...” Calipari said. “... Before I retire I’d like to do it.”

Calipari stopped by Boyd County High School on Wednesday morning as part of the annual Satellite Camp Tour. He signed paraphernalia and posed for pictures for about 45 minutes before addressing 5- to 12-year-olds about how to approach the game and stay committed.

Calipari, along with assistants Kenny Payne and John Robic, current players Todd Lanter and Brian Long, as well as former player Marquis Estill were all in attendance for the third of five total tour days. The group traveled to Montgomery County on Wednesday afternoon.

“This gives us a chance to go out into the communities and connect with our fans,” Calipari said. “It’s really funny. We’ll have 100 kids in a gym and 400 adults — grandma, mee-maw, pee-paw — but it’s fun. We enjoy it.

“Sometimes we forget they (might have never had) the chance to be touching the coach at Kentucky.”

***AUDIO INTERVIEW LOCATED ALONG RIGHT SIDE OF PAGE under "Related audio"***

One objective of the camp is to teach parents how to instruct their children as much as teaching kids themselves, said Calipari.

Calipari and staff’s coaching approach never wavered throughout a taxing 2012-13 season that resulted in an NIT loss at Robert Morris. The Wildcats went 21-12, easily their worst record in Calipari’s four seasons. They had combined for 14 total losses the three previous years. It was Calipari’s first NIT showing since 2004-05 while at Memphis.

“Can you stick to your principles and can you stick to your core values when it’s not going good for you as a coach? I think we did,” he said.

What Calipari took away from the rocky ride might surprise some.

“We may have overachieved,” he said. “When I say that, I mean we finished second in our league ... we were 3-1 against the three teams that made the NCAA Tournament in our league. We fell down at the end on the road and in (the SEC Tournament). We had no Nerlens (Noel). At the end of the day, we may have overachieved.”

Kentucky went 4-5 without Noel, who is expected to be the No. 1 draft choice later this month. Four of those defeats were by double digits.

“We didn’t have the mental makeup you needed, and then when we had the injury, we were behind the 8-ball,” Calipari said. “Everybody thinks, well they just didn’t come together (as a team). No, we just weren’t as talented as those teams in the past. We weren’t as skilled, didn’t make the shots.”

Calipari is anticipating another dramatic turnaround, this time a 180-degree twist for the better.

Much of his young bunch elected to come back, as Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson highlight the pack of returners.

Joining them? Only what some are recognizing as the greatest recruiting class of all-time.

Aaron Harrison (G), Andrew Harrison (G), Dakari Johnson (C), Marcus Lee (F), Julius Randle (F) and James Young (G) are all five-star freshmen, while Kentuckians Dominique Hawkins (G) and Derek Willis (F) also bring talent to the table.

“It’s not the best players that win, it’s the best team that wins,” Calipari said before a brief pause.

Then he clarified: “It’s the best players who make the best team that wins. If anybody thinks they can make a really good team with bad players, they’re full of themselves.”

Calipari said he’s excited for next season, which opens on Nov. 8 against UNC-Asheville, simply because it’s the next one.

“Let’s see what we can do with this group,” he said.

Calipari’s previous Final Four teams — 1995-96 UMass, 2007-08 Memphis, 2010-11 Kentucky, 2011-12 Kentucky — possessed at least four common attributes.

“They were all great rebounding teams, all great defensive teams, all blocked a lot of shots,” Calipari said. “Offensively, we had great balance.”

Will this team have it?

“I hope so,” is all Calipari could say at this point.

In Kentucky’s 2012 title season, seven players averaged between 5.0 and 14.2 points a game. The Wildcats allowed just 60 points per game, blocked a nation-best 344 shots and tallied 1,556 total rebounds (2nd in country).

Calipari and company narrowly missed on that ever elusive pursuit of perfection by two losses, just as in 1996 with UMass and in 2008 with Memphis.

Calipari recalled words from Tyrone Weeks while at UMass before the ’95-96 Final Four campaign — the Minutemen fell to eventual champion Kentucky.

“Tyrone steps in and says, ‘Let’s win them all,’” Calipari said. “The problem with that was we opened up with Kentucky, who had 11 NBA players. Then we had Maryland, Florida, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Southern Cal, Memphis, Louisville, Princeton ...

“... Guess what? Because of him, we won our first 27.”

The only school to ever bookend an NIT appearance with two NCAA championships was Kentucky from 1949-51.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.