LEXINGTON — The last thing some coaches would want with a team on big winning streak and the nation’s top ranking would be a practice distraction.
Of course, John Calipari is not just some coach. He’s a creator who thinks outside the box. He relishes what other coaches might despise. That’s why he not only suggested that Kentucky have an open practice for students and faculty, but loved every minute of it Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum.
“If someone gets something from our practice that helps them help another player, I’m good with it. Doesn’t bother me at all,” Calipari said.
He worries about his program, not other programs. And he knew this was good — make that very good — for Kentucky basketball.
Not only did 2,000 UK students and faculty get to see the practice and intrasquad scrimmage in person, but fans across much of the state watched on local television, while nationally fans — including recruits and their families — could watch on television or online.
Calipari’s only regret was that the two-hour practice could not be opened to the general public because of parking concerns on campus.
Give the coach credit for keeping it a normal practice, too. Kentucky always spend a lot of time on transition drills, with Calipari encouraging players to take open shots, and the Wildcats did again Wednesday. The same drills the team does at closed practices it did Wednesday.
“It’s our practice. It’s not abnormal that way. The stuff that surrounds us gets them more focused, so we’re really not changing anything,” Calipari said before the practice started. “This isn’t like, ‘OK, let’s go have a volleyball game.’ We are practicing, and you will see that. Then we’ll scrimmage a little bit.”
He says he did this only because Kentucky lost at Indiana on a last-second shot in a game following an open week like this one earlier this season. That could be right, but it also was a great week to change the team’s routine and also demonstrate what Calipari calls the “Kentucky Effect.”
Only in Kentucky could a midweek February practice draw national TV exposure — for two straight hours. Only at Kentucky could an open practice have to be stopped for a media timeout to accommodate television.
Calipari knew fans and TV cameras would keep an edge on his players.
“It kind of mushrooms like everything else we seem to do around here. But it was only supposed to be an open practice. I want the students into it. I want our players alert and focused and to not get numb through the week,” Calipari said before the practice. “Our practices are pretty consistent in how we go about it, and that’s what I was feeling.
“It turned into, ‘Why don’t we call (WKYT-TV general manager) Wayne Martin?’ and then its like, ‘Why don’t we call ESPN?’ and then its like, ‘I bet you it rates higher than games.’ It’s crazy. It’s Kentucky. That’s the ‘Kentucky Effect.’”
“A lot of it is tempo,” Strickland said during the broadcast. “These drills are always to push tempo and get guys to play at a fast pace. It also gives them ball-handling skills. We try to get them to push the ball with both hands and finish at the rim as fast as possible. These drills make you go hard. A lot of times guys want to slow down, but these drills do not let you do that.”
Calipari tried to make sure of that. He instructed fans to “go crazy” when something good happened, but that he needed silence when the whistle blew and he wanted to talk to the team.
One of the best parts came at the beginning, when Calipari gave students a chance to ask him questions.
— Who’s the best player you’ve coached? “It’s hard to pick or choose because I have been so blessed,” Calipari said. “The best thing to happen to me is that my best players have been good guys. When your best player is a good guy and teammate, it makes your job easy. When they are not, it makes it very difficult.”
— Would you rather coach Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? “Jeremy Lin,” Calipari said of the New York Knicks’ sudden sensation. “I respect both guys, and I talk about both players with my team, Both are truly committed to the sport and their career. Kobe gets up at 4 a.m. and does a two-hour workout, comes back in the afternoon to lift (weights) and then plays at night. LeBron is the same way.”
— What team would you fear most in the NCAA tournament? “I fear every team we play until the last game. We had a good run last year, but Princeton almost beat us (in the first game). Brandon Knightmade a layup at the buzzer for us to win. I worry about every game. But then we did come back and beat North Carolina and Ohio State.”
— What former player would you like to have back on your team? “ You guys are killing me,” Calipari joked. “It would be hard for any of you to say who the top 15 players are. I have been able to coach some of the greatest players. I am not embarrassed by that. We have a good team this year. We have good players.”
— What has been your most meaningful win at Kentucky? “It’s going to be the next one. I am at Kentucky. You people expect us to win every game by 25 points, and if not 25, then it’s, ‘What’s wrong with the Cats?’”
Of course, why would he expect anything else at a school where even a mid-February basketball practice can become a national event.