BOISE, Idaho — No. 5 seed Kentucky and No. 12 seed Buffalo tip off at 5:15 p.m. ET Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Here’s everything Kentucky coach John Calipari said in his Friday press conference to preview the game.
Young team, first NCAA Tournament last night. How encouraging was it that it was Hami that got things rolling really early?
Have you ever had a player to be in the hole as deep as he was and trying to climb out?
JOHN CALIPARI: Not that was a starter. I’ve had guys in that hole, but they weren’t starting. And we’ve stuck with him, he’s stuck with us. The way he drove the ball and the things he did. And the other thing you may have missed, he really did a good job defensively guarding Grady.
Just curious what you think of the way Buffalo played last night against Arizona, how much you watched of that game tape,
and what do you think of Buffalo? They seemed pretty confident.
JOHN CALIPARI: If I were on their team I’d feel very confident, too. The way they played, I watched about six tapes of them, and they remind me of my UMass teams. Hard-nosed, tough, swagger, chip on their shoulder. I’m a high Major player, and they are. And my UMass teams went to, I don’t know, four or five Sweet 16s, a couple of Elite 8s, a Final Four, I believe. Some of my people will check those numbers, but I believe it is.
And that’s what I see in them. The ability to score the ball, they score 85 points a game. They play fast. But they’re tough defensively. They’re not afraid to mix it up and be physical. And they’ve got players that come off the bench and give them a jolt defensively. They’ve got those kind of players that are positionless. You play them, and you say he’s their 4. He’s not their 4. He’s like a 2, 3 playing as a 4.
So their record indicates that what they are, which is they are an outstanding team. They’re well-coached. And we understand it’s going to be a hard game. We’re walking in with all freshmen. We know it’s going to be a tough game. It will be a hard one for us.
Can you talk about the biggest challenge when you have that many young guys, what’s the hardest part?
JOHN CALIPARI: The first thing you have to understand that young people will do, and they do this at every level, I would imagine every sport, until you establish who you are, it’s hard to be about the team. They go through the process of trying to establish themselves. It takes time.
The biggest thing for me is to try to get them to think different. They’ve never had to prepare the way they do now. If they played bad it was always someone else. It was the coach. They never had to take responsibility for their play. They never had to self-evaluate. They just went on to the next game, because they had three games in one day. A lot of times they were enabled by people around them, never held them accountable. They believed they worked, but they never — they have to learn all that.
Most of it is a mindset. They can do probably 40 percent — when they think they’re done, they’ve got about 40 or 50 percent more in their bodies. But they’ve always stopped. I’m done here.
That being said, I’ve always had veteran players that could talk the young players through. That’s not the case with this team.
I said I’ve never gotten frustrated, because this has been maybe my most rewarding season as a coach, to see a group on the edge of the abyss, the look of terror, the text to me, Coach, we need you more than ever now, to smiling faces, being about each other, picking each other in the locker room. They were so happy for Wenyen in the SEC tournament. Seeing that an individual is playing better, individuals helping their team as they helped themselves.
The last piece of it is they’ve got to come together and be about each other. And normally that takes us, the people that have watched my teams until February. We play okay, but it takes until February before they establish who they are, start thinking the right way, start preparing the right way. If I want to change I’ve got to work and do things different. If I want to be disciplined on the court I’ve got to be disciplined off the court. I’ve got to do things I don’t like to do and then try to do them well. I mean, it’s like a process that every one of these kids go through.
What are your thoughts about Georgia hiring Tom Crean?
JOHN CALIPARI: He and I talked yesterday. I couldn’t be more happy for him. Terrific coach. One of the best. He’s into basketball. He loves it. He’s about getting kids better. He’s always done it. We’ve had some good games.
I did tell him I’m taking Georgia off the schedule. He laughed. Said, We’re playing you twice. I said, Not in Athens. No, I’m just kidding. We’re playing in Athens. But I’m happy for him.
During the losing streak a lot of people, myself included, doubted that you could get this team playing at this level. Given
the fact that —
JOHN CALIPARI: You doubted me?
I doubted you, yes, sir.
JOHN CALIPARI: And told me that? Why did you tell me? I didn’t know. Now I look at you different (laughter).
Given this team is the youngest in the history of college basketball, and given the fact that they could revert at any time
JOHN CALIPARI: Everybody have followed us closely.
Everybody talks about peaking at the right time. Is it fair to say that this team is peaking at the right time?
JOHN CALIPARI: We don’t know yet. I’ll tell you after tomorrow’s game. Tomorrow’s game is: Are you ready to dig your heels in and ready to be strong with the ball and not make excuses and play harder than the other team? That means I’m looking at a guy in the eyes and I’m going to play harder than him. And Buffalo is looking at us and say, No, we’re playing harder than you.
Do you know what that ends up being? That is a scrum. Are you willing to play in the scrum? I love it. I think it’s the best. And here’s a big part of the reason: These kids, every experience they go through they’re learning, it’s going to help them in the future. And playing in this type of game, it’s wonderful, because there are some guys on the team that have to conquer that. You can bail out, take a fade away or you can go right at that rim and try to get fouled. You can play defensively and stay in a stance and here he drives it, or you can foul him. You can have this look or you can have this look, which one do you want?
And so this is all good for these kids. I have no idea. What I’d like, and what’s been rewarding, I saw the eyes that you saw in February. But I also knew they were looking right at my eyes, like how is he taking this? And, you know, I’ve been doing this 35 years. 35 years. I’ve seen everything. We’ve had losing streaks. We lost to four NCAA Tournament teams. They were four. They weren’t bad teams. And so I knew we were getting better, and everybody is, Why are you so calm? Because we are getting better, that’s all I can ask of these guys.
And now that I see what they look like and how they’re responding and how their games are changing, that is rewarding to me. And I’ll say it again, of all the years I’ve had, this may be the most rewarding for me personally, to see this team do the things that they’re doing.
How about this quote from Nate Oats: Calipari has been whining about no experience, young, young, young —
JOHN CALIPARI: Who said that?
Nate Oats. His direct quote. He was excited after the game. We don’t have that problem, we’ve got some veteran guys. What
do you think, just trying to talk his guys up?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know if it’s whining or telling the truth. I’m not whining about it. I’ve got a pretty good team. He should not tell the truth. He should not even say it. Introduce them and don’t give their year. That’s fine.
At the end of the day we’ve got to play a basketball game. Everybody has got to get in the ring and play.
You’ve probably been in every single tournament situation but going into tomorrow, playing a team that’s coming off their
biggest win in school history, what kind of challenges does that face for a team that’s playing loose and playing like they
have nothing to lose?
JOHN CALIPARI: We’re playing like we have nothing to lose. If we play and they play, it’s probably going to come down to who has the ball last. That happens in the NCAA Tournament when two teams are fighting.
If they come after us and we back up, they win the game. It’s just how it is.
I’ll see how the game is being played. I don’t know until the game starts. And then what I have to do to try to keep my team in the game I’ll try to do. My freshmen — I start five freshmen, by the way. I’m not whining, I’m just explaining.
How good a leader has Shai been for you this year, and does he remind you of anybody else you’ve had?
JOHN CALIPARI: He’s come on for that. And you have to earn that. I hate to tell you, we won the SEC Championship and the Commissioner said, Who are your captains? He wanted to give my captains the trophy. I never named captains. I didn’t know who the captains were. I just, You two, come up here.
But he is now becoming that guy because of how he works, how he performs, how he finishes games. Players are now looking to him. It’s the best way is to have captains kind of evolve versus I’m naming you a captain. I’d rather it be that way.
Last night Arizona had Deandre, and Perkins is probably four inches shorter than Deandre, and he was blowing by him. What
kind of matchup issues does Buffalo pose in that lineup that has four guards, and a 6-8 center? And you and Arizona both have
a lot of height. Is that difficult when you’re going against —
JOHN CALIPARI: They also front the post. They also put unbelievable pressure on the ball. As much as it’s that, you’ve got to withstand it. They’re going to play. You’re not just passing it where you want to pass it. You better get open and be strong with the ball. If you’re in the post you better fight for the position, because they’re not going to give it to you. It’s not just height. It’s more battle.
And they’ve been through it. They won their league. They won their league tournament a couple of years running now. They’re good. This is no — I’m just telling you. I’ve lived it. I had that kind of team. I had guys with chips on their shoulders. It’s fun to coach those guys. I always say when I had a whip I would talk. I would say stuff, because I had a whip, I knew, they’d back me up, they’d go play.
It should be fun. It’s going to be a hard game.
I don’t know if you agree with this, but a lot of higher-seeded teams might try to shorten the game. Buffalo is 17th in the
country in tempo. Do you agree that they’re a little unusual and they use the tempo against everybody and what do you think
of the tempo?
JOHN CALIPARI: My thing was I thought they were the top 5 in how fast they were playing, not 17th. And they’re creating shots for each other. They’re an unselfish team, too, now. They don’t just come down — they’re creating good shots for each other. They use the lane to create opportunities on the perimeter. And they’ve got a lot of mismatch problems.
Do you recall who the player was that sent you the text that said —
JOHN CALIPARI: I do.
Can you tell us who it is?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, but I do.
Has it ever happened before? And how much did that drive into you that you’ve got to get this right or these kids will never
get to where they should be?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, it’s more of how can I feel bad when I’ve done this for 30 years and been through everything? My focus is going to be on how do they feel? And that just because they’re 6-9 and 6-10 doesn’t mean they’re grown men. They have not been through these experiences that I have. And I’ve got to keep relating to them that it’s okay. And it’s okay not to play poorly, if you self-evaluate and figure out how you’re going to change it. If you make excuses, if you’re enabled by the people around you it’s not good.
But these kids didn’t do that. The people around them didn’t do that. They just kept fighting.
I text with a lot of the guys. I texted today a couple of times with the entire team. And I’ll text each guy and give them something, some thoughts and stuff. And sometimes I get stuff back. Sometimes not. But hopefully they read some of it.
I know that the coaches and the players often run into each other in different settings. With the Buffalo kids, seen any of
them outside of whatever you’ve been watching the last few days?
JOHN CALIPARI: No. I don’t know if you remember, but when I was at UMass my team was No. 1 in the country, and we went to Buffalo. Dan Bazzani coached the team. He said, Come and play at Buffalo. We played at Buffalo in their new arena. One of the reasons I got to — I like to talk food, I went to Bacci Pizza, unbelievable, big square. They had anchor wings, have you ever heard of them? I said, We’ll play in Buffalo, I’m going to have two nights of eating good food. I’m good.
We played. And I’ve always had great thoughts. I’ve had friends of mine who lived in Buffalo, Art Serotte was a high school coach for years and years and years, and stays in touch with me now. So I’ve always liked Buffalo. In August it’s 76 degrees. The rest of us it’s 110. In Buffalo it’s 76 degrees.
I wonder, you’re very animated during games and very into the action. I wonder if there were coaches you watched coming up
that you sort of got that from how do you try to handle that, not getting too excited?
JOHN CALIPARI: You are who you are when you’re coaching. And I never tried to be anybody else. But whether it’s the guys I played for, Bill Sacco, and Joe DeGregorio, I thought everyone that went into coaching was Italian for a while. I didn’t learn until I left high school that there were other people that coached basketball. And then I worked for Larry Brown. I’ve worked for great people. Paul Evans.
They were all different. I learned from each of them. But I don’t think any of us in this profession can try to be anybody else.
I wish I was less animated. I wish I was less emotional. But I was born this way.
I’ve been sitting here listening to all these other coaches talk about how much they enjoy the process of seeing their teams
develop without having to worry about the results. At Kentucky you don’t have that luxury, you’ve got to win every game by
20 points. Do you ever feel cheated that you’re not able to really enjoy —
JOHN CALIPARI: I enjoy it. No one will steal my joy. I don’t read anything. Has anybody followed me on Twitter. If you do, I don’t read what you send back. 600,000 Facebook, 700,000, a million, I don’t read any of it. I send stuff out. I send pictures out and most of it is trying to help other people.
But my joy is my joy. No one creates it for me and no one will take it away. I’ve had many people try to steal my joy. They failed. They failed. If I worry about people in the seats, what they’re saying — in Kentucky we have four million coaches, that’s how many people live in the state, four million. If I worry about them I’ll be up there sitting with them.
I try to coach my team. And I get great joy. When I don’t get that great joy then I won’t do this anymore. I don’t feel like I have to do this the rest of my life and then that’s it. I’m really enjoying the players. Very hard turning over teams like this. Very difficult. And there were times I’d shake my head, why do I even try this?
And I think back to my teams where I had four years with guys when I was at UMass. And I wish I had guys for four years. But it’s not my rule. And all I’m trying to do is help the kids and whatever is right for the kids I’ll deal with. They are 19. I am 49. I can deal with it.
I was wondering if you knew Nate Oats at all? Have you recruited any of his guys at Romulus?
JOHN CALIPARI: I’ve been up there and I’ve recruited some guys up there, yeah.
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