Calipari's defense may be key to Kentucky's shot at another title
Despite featuring freshmen, John Calipari's teams consistently excel at defense
This year's squad is the greenest team Calipari has coached since the 2009 season
UK could feature two great rim protectors in Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein
John Calipari did not spend a single one of Kentucky's 16, one-hour workouts this summer working with his players on defense. Since practices officially began in October, Calipari says he and his staff have instructed "all offense," and that won't change until after the season begins.
For those who want to view Calipari as a coach who merely amasses great talent and rolls out the ball, those details are manna. Can you imagine Jim Boeheim not working on his 2-3 zone for 16 consecutive practices? Would Bo Ryan or Tom Izzo or another coach known for teaching great man-to-man defense not instruct on that until after games were played?
But there is no madness in Calipari's methods and more than a little genius. "First, I don't want [the players] to be miserable right away playing basketball. I want them to enjoy it," he says. "They enjoy offense." Second, by focusing almost entirely on teaching his Dribble-Drive Motion offense, Calipari is pulling something of a Mr. Miyagi, Wax-on, Wax-off trick on his players. "Having to guard the ball is the hardest thing you have to learn," he says. "Guarding against screens, against the picker and rolls and all that, we have schemes for that stuff, but it starts with a guy with the ball coming at you. By working on the Dribble-Drive right away, we are working on guarding the dribbler from the start."
By winning the national title last season, Calipari changed the narrative of his coaching career. Some people may continue to view him as one of the black hats of college basketball, but even his critics must concede that underneath that black hat is one of the smartest minds in the game. That is best illustrated by how Calipari's teams, despite almost always featuring several freshmen in major roles, consistently rank among the top defensive units in the nation. Since 2006, his teams at Memphis and Kentucky have finished in the top 15 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, and only twice in that six-year span has a Calipari-coached squad fallen outside the top 10.
It is an impressive achievement, one belatedly (and somewhat reluctantly) acknowledged by his peers, the media and by fans.
"Despite [Kentucky's] talent and offensive firepower, without getting all five of his guys to buy-in on defense, they don't win the national title," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said at a coaching clinic in September. "It's a real credit to [Calipari]. He gets credit for recruiting and all that stuff, but doesn't get enough credit for the defense his teams play."
His current Kentucky team does not return a single player who has started a game, and four freshmen -- centers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin -- will play significant minutes. It is the greenest team Calipari has had since coming to Lexington in 2009. Despite that, Kentucky is ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and is the favorite to finish atop the SEC, which also includes No. 10 Florida and No. 15 Missouri. It demonstrates the faith voters now have that Calipari can get his team, no matter how youthful, to play exceptional defense.
"We are not very good [defensively] right now. We are not where we've been with [past Kentucky] teams," Calipari says. "We are not good on the ball. We are not good off the ball. We don't understand how high hands change and how another team plays offensively, and we are not helping each other yet. The effort is not really even there. But that's OK. It's early."
Calipari sees potential in the group because many of his players possess the attribute he finds most often in good defenders. "You want to have someone with a high motor, a guy like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist," Calipari says. "The high motor guys are easier to teach. The low motor guys are harder to teach because they stop all the time. It's the hardest thing for a guy who wants to stop all the time to learn he can't. It starts in the recruiting process and how you present it. We present it as: If you don't guard people you aren't going to play."
After he has players on campus, Calipari builds great individual defenders first and then melds them into a unit. He says he initially tries to get each player "to understand what the best version of themselves defensively looks like." One way to do that is to show the players what they look like at their worst.
A few weeks after practices began, Calipari called Poythress to his office, sat the athletic 6-foot-7 forward from Clarksville, Tenn. down, and then rolled the tape. They watched a cut-up of plays from several practices, moments when Poythress lost his man, had his hands on knees, ran out rather than rebound and other miscues. It was a lengthy clip of blunder after blunder. "I am telling [Poythress], 'this is what you look like. This can't be the best version of you,'" Calipari says.
Young players with NBA futures are often resistant to the version of themselves that Calipari envisions. They fall back on high school habits, believing they can get away with something less than maximum effort and discipline because of their superior talent.
"That was why I was fine with us starting the season with Maryland [on Nov. 9] and Duke [Nov. 13]," Calipari says. "Those are two good teams that are going to exploit all the things this team doesn't do defensively. [The players] may not believe us now, but they will believe after those games."
When he has true believers, when the best version of each player comes into focus, Calipari starts putting them together. Many of his former players talk of this process as Calipari getting his players to act as if they were all "on a string."
"[UMass coach] Derek Kellogg recently sent me a tape of a practice when I was playing at UMass [for Calipari from 1989-93]," says Harper Williams, now on the basketball staff at Auburn. "It was the same defense you see Kentucky playing now. Everyone was moving like they were on the same string. One person is guarding the ball, but they are all moving together. You gamble and everybody around you moves to help. You can guard your man with pressure because everyone has your back.
"When I was at UMass, I was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year [in 1993] but if I missed a defensive assignment, [Calipari] would pull me. You could go down on offense and shoot a crazy shot and he might not take you out of the game. But if you missed your defensive assignment you might as well walk to the bench."
Williams spent 15 years playing overseas, and he says he ran in to too many players "who weren't complete players. I was a complete player because I learned defense from [Calipari]. It helped me so much as a professional. That is one reason why I was so happy he got that big win last year and started getting the respect he deserves for being such a good teacher."
The best Calipari teams have featured a dominant shot blocker. At UMass, he had Marcus Camby. At Memphis, it was Joey Dorsey. Last season, he had Anthony Davis. But his defense was not initially designed around an elite rim protector. "What I learned from Larry Brown [who Calipari worked under as an assistant coach with Philadelphia 76ers in 1999-2000] and others was that we are only going to give you one tough shot, and then we are going to rebound it like crazy," Calipari says. "What happened with Camby and then Joey Dorsey and then [Davis], is that it allowed our defense to be more aggressive because we had that shot blocker."
This year's Wildcats could feature two great rim protectors on the floor together in seven-footers Noel and Cauley-Stein, though Calipari is still pondering how that lineup might function. "We are hoping Nerlens and Willey get there, but they are not there yet," Calipari says.
If they and the other Wildcats find the best versions of themselves defensively, and if Calipari melds them together into a great defensive unit, Kentucky will once again contend for the national title. In the meantime, the pool of people who won't give Calipari his due continues to shrink.
"The media has been painting who wears the white hat and the black hat and the guys who can coach and the guys who can't coach," he says. "But people have too much information at their fingertips now to settle for that anymore. People can write that this guy can't coach but it doesn't add up. And being connected to this coach or that coach doesn't have the effect it once had. People can go look at the information now and educate themselves to the truth."