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ROYAL BLUE
KELLI ANDERSON
April 09, 2012
DISPLAYING POISE ALMOST EQUAL TO THEIR TALENT, THE WILDCATS RACED PAST KANSAS TO WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE AND PUT A NEW SPIN ON A PHRASE OFTEN ATTACHED TO COACH JOHN CALIPARI: WON-AND-DONE
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April 09, 2012

Royal Blue

DISPLAYING POISE ALMOST EQUAL TO THEIR TALENT, THE WILDCATS RACED PAST KANSAS TO WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE AND PUT A NEW SPIN ON A PHRASE OFTEN ATTACHED TO COACH JOHN CALIPARI: WON-AND-DONE

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Davis played so hard this season that he impressed even Calipari. "A guard playing hard and him playing hard are two different things," says the coach. "He's in a mud-wrestling match [with opposing forwards] along with running hard, whereas the guards are just running." On the rare occasions Davis seemed to slow down, Calipari jumped on him. When he saw the big man jogging during a February game against Vanderbilt, Calipari yanked him to the bench and bellowed, "You don't jog this court! If you need a break, come out!"

Likewise Calipari never let up on Teague, another McDonald's All-American who was so hurried and turnover-prone in the early season that "you would have said we're going to have to play somebody else at point," says the coach. Every day in practice he barked at Teague to slow down, run the team and pick better spots for his own shots. To endure the tutoring, "you gotta be tough-skinned," says Teague, who averaged 4.8 assists and 2.5 turnovers in six tournament games. "Everything he's telling you, he's just trying to help."

"One thing about John, he doesn't back down," says Crean. "You don't ever get one over on him, you don't ever trick him. He is so good at dealing with high-level athletes, I don't think high-maintenance affects him. He goes right through that."

Calipari says the secret to getting young, elite players to play hard and unselfishly begins during recruiting. He doesn't make promises about playing time or touches, and he walks out of homes if a kid disrespects a parent or grandparent, "because they won't listen to me either," he says.

The key players during this championship campaign include six likely NBA draft picks—Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are projected to go one-two, while Jones, Lamb, senior guard Darius Miller and Teague should also be selected—but they were as unselfish and as cohesive as they were talented. Even Louisville's Pitino, who has a frosty relationship with Calipari, said after losing 69--61 in last Saturday's semifinal, "I haven't always liked the Kentucky teams, but I really like this team because of their attitude and the way they play. They're a great group of guys."

The Wildcats led the nation in blocked shots (344), field-goal-percentage defense (37.4%) and scoring margin (16.8 points), but the stat Calipari liked to tout most was this: He had seven players who put up 20 points a game in high school, yet none of them averaged more than 9.3 shots this season. And all seven led the team in scoring at least once. But the best thing about this group? "These guys really like each other," he says.

In a group that by all accounts was without an alpha male, perhaps the most unselfish of all was Miller, whom freshman guard Sam Malone calls "the nicest guy on the team and one of the most popular people on campus." Miller is the last link to the regime before Calipari arrived, in 2009--10. The spring before the Maysville, Ky., native arrived in Lexington to play for then coach Billy Gillispie, the Cats were so far removed from their accustomed dominance that Miller's AAU teammate Shelvin Mack, a Butler signee, cracked, "At least I'm going to a top 20 program!"

Miller came off the bench as a freshman with Gillispie and then started 69 of 76 games as a sophomore and junior for Calipari, absorbing a new crop of superstar freshmen every year. ("No college player has played with more NBA players than him," says Calipari of Miller, who has had 40 teammates at Kentucky.) This year he had to adjust again, returning to a backup role to make room for Kidd-Gilchrist. "I didn't really have a problem with it," says Miller. "Coach said someone had to come off the bench, and it happened to be me."

Before the Wildcats played Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final, Kidd-Gilchrist approached Calipari. "He said, 'Coach, we need Darius in the NCAA tournament, and he's not playing well right now. Let me come off the bench,'" recalls Calipari, who honored the request. "That is neat. That is one where I said to my staff, 'We're good.'"

The first signs that this team could be extraordinary were evident during summer pickup games at the Craft Center. With the NBA lockout in effect, Calipari had reached out to a number of pros—some former Wildcats, some not—and offered the use of Kentucky's facilities. On a few occasions the pros played open-run pickup games that the college players could join. In these sessions the callow Cats absorbed a few critical lessons.

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