LEXINGTON, Ky.– College basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith and has been played for over 100 years.
If Naismith was the founder, Kentucky coach John Calipari is the marketing guru who is putting his stamp on the sport’s second century by implementing creative ideas designed to keep his program in the forefront of the news.
This summer, for example, he took his team to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas on a foreign tour that he named Big Blue Bahamas. The Cats played six games in eight days against the Puerto Rican national team reserves, the Dominican Republic World Cup team and Champagne Chalons-Reims Basketball, a first -dvision team from France.
Calipari isn’t the first coach to take a team to the Caribbean, but he he used his showmanship and the power of Kentucky to get all six games televised on ESPNU and the new SEC Network and made it “Must See TV.”
This past weekend, Calipari hatched an idea that would make the best fusion chefs of New York City envious, belnding two differerent sports when he arranged for the players on this talent loaded basketball team to participate in an NFL football-style combine and invited every NBA franchise to attend the two-hour workout at the Craft Center on campus.
Thirty of 32 NBA teams and 91 scouts, GMS and front office personnel showed up Friday as did Jay Bilas and a five-man crew from ESPN, who broadcast the drills and intersquad scrimmage, turning the event into a two-hour infomercial for the Cats and making UK the center of the college basketball universe again.
“I thought every team would come because of who we had and, if they didn’t, it would be hard to explain,” Calipari said. “It ended up being a home run for our players, a home run for the scouts. It was also a home run for our program. You’re talking about two hours on ESPN at this time of the year. They’re not talking about any other program but ours. I said, ‘If other teams want to do it, do it. Don’t be mad. Do it.”’
Calipari, who has taken the Cats to three final Fours in his five years at UK and won a national title in 2012, has a history of thinking outside the box, dating back to his days at UMass, when he went to ESPN and offered to play a midnight game against BU in the original “Rage in the Cage” game on his campus just to get his program some national exposure on the TV sports cable giant.
“When I got into coaching, I was always watching Dean Smith,” Calipari said. “Dean Smith was innovative in everything he did during his time at North Carolina. I called Roy Williams, the coach there now, and asked him, ‘How many things did Dean Smith do that were a bust?’ He was honest. He said. “Some things, you’re going to stub your toe.”
But there was far more success than failure for an ACC program that is still a regular presence at the Final Four.
Smith tailored his teams to the players he had available. But his teams generally featured a fast break style, a half court offense that emphasized the passing game and an aggressive trapping defense that produced turnovers and easy baskets. Smith’s teams generally featured a fast-break style, a half-court offense that emphasized the passing game, and an aggressive trapping defense that produced turnovers and easy baskets. From 1970 until his retirement in 1998, North Carolina shot over 50 percent in all but four years.
Smith is credited with creating or popularizing the following basketball techniques: The “tired signal,” in which a player would use a hand signal (originally a raised fist) to indicate that he needed to come out for a rest, huddling at the free throw line before a foul shot,encouraging players who scored a basket to point a finger at the teammate who passed them the ball, in honor of the passer’s selflessness, instituting a variety of defensive sets, including the point zone, the run-and-jump, and double-teaming the screen-and-roll. He is most associated with his implementation of the four corners offense, a strategy for stalling with a lead near the end of the game. Smith’s teams executed the four corners set so effectively that in 1985 the NCAA instituted a shot clock to speed up play and minimize ball-control offense. Although Smith’s fellow Kansas alum John McLendon actually invented the four corners offense, Smith is better known for using it in games. Smith also instituted the practice of starting all his team’s seniors on the last home game of the season– Senior Day– as a way of honoring the contributions of the subs as well as the stars. In a season when the team included six seniors, he put all six on the floor at the beginning of the game – drawing a technical foul– rather than leaving one of them out.
Calipari eventually coached UMass, who were ranked 295 on the RPI when he arrived, to the NCAA Final Four in 1996. That year, UMass was ranked No. 1 for most of the season. The Minutemen eventually lost to Kentucky — a team they had beaten the first game of the year– in the national semis when Rick Pitino won his first national title. Eleven players from Kentucky’s “Untouchables” eventually played in the NBA. Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Tony Delk, Nazr Muhammed, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Scott Padgett and Jamaal Magloire were selected in the first round. Mark Pope, Wayne Turner and Jeff Sheppard also made rosters.
It is far too early to compare this current Kentucky team with that Roman empire, but Calipari does have 11 players– Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marques Lee, Karl Towns, Alex Poythrees, Tre Lyles, Derek Willis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Devon Booker, Tyler Ullis– who have sparked interest from the NBA.
Calipari has never worried about players leaving early for the NBA draft. It is one of his biggest selling points when he recruits. He is essentially telling the NCAA this is who we are. The NCAA loves to talk about college preparing student athletes to go pro in professions other than sports. Calipari is open about preparing his players for the league and the 19 pictures of NBA players hanging on the walls of the Cats practice facility speak volumes.
Caliapri has seen the vast amount of NFL scouts who show up for pro days at Alabama, Penn State and Notre Dame. And he knows how vital information can be. He gave NBA scouts three days– Friday, Saturday and Sunday– to gather as much material as they wanted on his players.
“The reason I did what we’re doing here, I had to let the kids know I had their backs, that I have the best interest in what they do,” Calipari said. “I think they understand now I know their interest. They want to win and they want to be in the NBA someday. Their dreams become my dreams. And now we can get on with the season. They’ve been looked at more than any college program in the country at this point of the season. Now, let’s get back to being a good team.”
Calipari has nine McDonald’s All Americans on his roster. His second unit could be a Top 15 team. In the past, Calipari subscribed to the late John Wooden’s philosophy of using a short rotation in the tournament. But Calipari seems willing to experiment in order to keep his top 10 players happy, hiring an analytics’ specialist to determine which of them have the highest level of efficiency, based on minutes played.
Calipari never expected all of these players to return last spring, but when Cauley-Stein, Poythrees and the Harrison twins did, he wound up with an embarrassment of riches. “We didn’t know,” Calipari said. “I thought I’d have a team of six or seven or eight. But that’s not what happened. So what do you do? Do you not play three of them? It’s okay not to play three if there not your sons. So the only way to do this is play 10. Just two platoons. Doc Rivers from the Clippers asked me: ‘What if two of them separate themselves from the other? Then, they probably play a few more minutes than their backups. That’s how it is.
“And you have the analytics to back up your decisions.”
Last year, Calipari lost only two players to the league. This year, there could be a mass exodus. “I have kids come to me when I’m recruiting them, saying they want to wait to see who leaves. You kidding me? We’re going to have to replace six, eight players. If you’re afraid of that, you probably shouldn’t be in the program.”
This is not the first time teams have tried platooning. Coaches rarely come up with revolutionary, game changing ideas. Smith followed in the footsteps of McLendon, substituting en masse with his Blue team at Carolina to keep up the tempo and defensive pressure.
Like Smith, Calipari is a student of history, who has shown the ability to pull the best from various coaches who have had success instead of trying to emulate one particular coach.
He is always looking for new ideas to keep his program fresh. .