City Sports Report

John Calipari : “We’re not perfect, we’re undefeated”

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Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari spoke with the media Friday night along with players Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron Harrison and Trey Lyles in advance of their Final Four game against Wisconsin.  Below is a transcript.

Q. John, you’ve won the Coach of the Year award. You’ve been to so many Final Fours now, but with the undefeated record looming over you, how different has this Final Four been and how have you had to treat the team as they’re coming in here?

COACH CALIPARI: Every team that you coach is different. My first two when I was at UMass, we really had backed up, were trying to keep them loose. It was our first time, school’s first time. Probably didn’t do as good of a job as I needed to because of that. I mean, our practices were an hour. When we went back, and at Memphis, that team had a spirit about them that they wanted to go, but we did back off some, but not as much as we did. This year’s team, I mean, we had two vicious practices Tuesday and Wednesday. I was on them like it was December. This is a team that wants to go at each other. Our advantage is that we have a lot of guys. So when we scrimmage, you really benefit by that. They want to. They don’t want to do drills. This is not a drills team. Stop the drills, throw the ball up. They go after each other. They argue every call. They fight. I have to, Stop it! I’m saying that five times a practice. So we went at it. We’re basically done now. I feel that we’ve done what we’re supposed to do with this team, but you never know. Probably after it’s over, I’ll say, I wish I hadn’t gone so hard.

Q. Obviously you’ve had to learn to trust freshmen a lot over the last several years. It seems to me you have a level of trust in Tyler Ulis that is uncommon for your circumstances. What is it about him that inspires so much trust?
COACH CALIPARI: I’ve had other freshmen that I’ve really trusted, like really, really said, I’m with you. I’ve had guys tell me, Calm down, I got this. Then I calm down and I sit down and I let them do their thing. With Tyler, you know he’s going to bring it. He’s going to go as hard as he can. He doesn’t always play great, but he brings it. The second thing you know, he’s playing for his team. I’ve got to get him to score more, like I did Derrick Rose. Derrick Rose, his inclination was create for his teammate and make everybody happy. Tyler, from Chicago, is like the same. I mean, you know, like the shot in the corner against Notre Dame, he posted it, it came back, he reposted it. Kenny and I at the same time, You let that thing go, you let it go. It came back to him and he made that three, which basically kept us in the game. He’s been injured now. He’s been injured for months now with shin splints. But he knows if he doesn’t practice, I’m not playing him. So he figures it out.

Q. The four best big men in college basketball are here. Is that coincidence or a culmination?
COACH CALIPARI: Look, I know how important big guys are, and I’m proud of our two. I mean, you think of how far Karl has come in a year, it’s ridiculous. But how far Willie has come in his career is truly ridiculous, too. At this time of the year, and in college basketball, guard play is vital. And for us right now, Andrew and Aaron, Devin and Tyler, but Andrew and Aaron did what they did a year ago, which is dragging our team. The good news for those two is if they’re not all on point, you got Tyler and Devin. The big guys, the big guys of the other team, they give you a presence around the goal. We scored against Notre Dame for nine straight minutes because we threw it to the post every single time. That would have never happened if we didn’t have a post player like Karl.

Q. How important is it for you to connect your current players at Kentucky with your past players at Kentucky?
COACH CALIPARI: I don’t have to do that. Those kids do it themselves. I mean, our former players are in touch with our players, in touch with our staff. I get the texts and the calls. You know, they know over All-Star break if they’re not playing, they stop in. In the summers they always will pass through. It’s been a great thing to see how they help each other and talk to one another. Anthony Davis sat down with Karl, basically told him, Hey, kid, you better step on the gas here. You know, came in and talked to him about it. It’s been fun being a part of this family, knowing that they’ve benefited by the experience of being at Kentucky and they give back. They give back in a lot of ways, but they give back to each other.

Q. What is the biggest challenge when coming back to the Final Four, other than the opponent you’re competing against?
COACH CALIPARI: Tickets (smiling). The challenge is staying away from that, getting your players to stay away from it. This year, and again this is the sixth Final Four I’ve been in, this ticket is ridiculous more than any other. Well, take that back. We were in the Meadowlands with Kentucky and Syracuse and Mississippi State. That was a ridiculous ticket, too, back in the day.

Q. Bo Ryan said he remembers you going back to the five star camps when you were doing your thing there. What do you remember about Bo then, also early memories of the other two coaches here?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, my respect for all three of these guys, I’ve talked about Bo. See, Bo was one of those guys as an assistant you always looked at because he was a class act, he did his job, he was into coaching, he’s a ‘Basketball Benny’. He speaks his mind, he doesn’t hold back. He goes to Division III, which most guys would not do, and he goes undefeated a couple seasons, won national championships. So then he goes to Wisconsin. Everybody says, You can’t have a division… He’s not, he’s a coach. He’s a ‘Basketball Benny’, he’s into the game. Every time I see him, we just go spend time. He’s from Chester. I’m from Coraopolis, Moon Township. You’re talking about the same kind of upbringing, all those things. So we’ve become close. Tommy and I, we’ve gone through this at the same stages. I mean, he’s a guy that I always throughout the year will call him if I have issues. If I see something good happening for him, he knows I’m on the phone for him. We compete, but we don’t compete. In other words, I don’t see him, I got to beat Tom and be better. I want him to do everything, win national titles. He knew I was happy he went to the Final Four this year. He called, I know you’re happy. Because you beat Louisville. No, I’m happy for Tom. Well, that too maybe, I don’t know (laughter). I was happy for Tom that he got that team, brought them together when they struggled. Then I’ve said about Coach K, I respect what he’s done in coaching. I respect what he’s done over decades. I respect the numbers which are jaw-dropping. But what moves me is what he’s done for mine. USA Basketball with, first of all, Derrick Rose, went from figuring it out, getting better, to MVP. You had Anthony Davis. He went from, What am I, who am I, to, I’m as good as anybody, to All-Star, to gold medal winner. I begged he and Jerry Colangelo. Please, the difference you will make for DeMarcus, you will take his career, you will save another. They kept him on that team. Look what happened for DeMarcus. He’s an All-Star. He’s a 20/20 machine, he’s ridiculous. But what he’s done for mine, that moves me. I’ve told him publicly and privately how much I appreciate what he’s done for my kids.

Q. You are the pup of these coaches, the youngest of the four.
COACH CALIPARI: This is an old crew if I’m the youngest of the four (smiling).

Q. You all have been so accomplished, successful. How have you prevented burnout and is there room for hobbies in your business?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, I don’t live and die with this stuff. The people that know me know I have other interests. I’m focused on helping these kids reach their dreams. Their dreams are my dreams. I sit on the same side of the table as them and their families. Want to win, want to win for the university I work for, want to win for the program. But the reality of it is our season ends June 28th here. That’s when our season’s over. That makes this different, for me anyway. It makes it different. Whether I’m with my family, I like to travel, I like to go to baseball games, I like to go to football camps, I like to go to different events and hang out. I love being with my friends, big dinners. That’s who I am, what I do. My wife’s not always happy. Where are you? But…

Q. Obviously you knew the pressure this team would face. How much have you emphasized drama and distraction that can hurt teams?
COACH CALIPARI: We’re concerned about us, to be honest with you. I talked to them last night again. We have one job. Individually it’s to be the best version of yourself. Get yourself mentally and physically prepared to be your best. We have to play at our best. That’s the best we can do. I can’t ask them for anything else. I told them, I don’t know the outcome. I can’t promise you the outcome. But I do know our chances are best if you’re the best version of you and we’re our best as a team. Things are going to go crazy. We’ll adjust. We’ve done it all year. If I can count on you for effort, you can count on us for adjustments, so…

Q. How would you describe the evolution of Trey Lyles from the time you got him to current day?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, he was injured this summer. He didn’t get to play with us in The Bahamas. The way this played out, which really for him personally was ideal. When Willie came back, Trey was going to have to play three because I had to play other people. Trey is probably a 4-3. Trey professionally will be a four, a stretch four. He’s playing three for us. He’s playing like a small forward guard. It’s helped him become a better defender. You get to see his postgame against players. He’s 6’10”. Then he got sick and he was out three weeks. Good news is he did not lose weight, which we were fearful of. So when he came back, he came back about 80% and he’s worked his way back. He’s the X-factor for our team. He did not play well against Notre Dame, and he knows it. As a matter of fact — no, I won’t say that. He didn’t play well against Notre Dame. Now he’s our X-factor. He’s that one guy that is hard to guard, can make rebounds, plays hard, plays big. Makes us a really big, really team, 7′, 7′, 6’10”, 6’6″. Really big.

Q. The Elite 8 game at the end, your guys ran on the floor and embraced each other like they made it to the Final Four and they weren’t supposed to be here. Is that a mentality they’ve created on their own or embraced? Is that something you’ve brought on to the team?
COACH CALIPARI: They’re kids. They’re 18- and 19-year-old kids. For Karl Towns, those other freshmen, they’d never been to a Final Four. The other guys had been there, but it was a hard game. We were lucky to win. You saw their joy. I can’t remember if we didn’t cut down nets somewhere, our conference tournament, we forgot. Oh, they’re not enjoying the moment. No, we forgot. But I wanted them to enjoy the moment. It’s a great accomplishment. I mean, getting to the Final Four is really, really hard. To be able to do it, I don’t care what your record is, ’cause everybody is 0-0. Right now, whether you’re Duke, Michigan State, Wisconsin or us, everybody’s record is the same. We’re all feeling the same thing. We all want to win a national title. So you have two losses, six losses, zero losses, 11 losses, it doesn’t matter. That’s why for us right now, let’s just be at our best. If that’s not good enough, I’ll deal with the results.

Q. I’m sure you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about awards. You’ve had a lot of great teams over the years. This is the first time I believe you’ve gotten the National Coach of the Year award from writer voters here. I’m curious if you’re surprised you got this and do you think it maybe indicates there’s a change in perception about you as a coach?
COACH CALIPARI: I don’t know. I mean, you’d have to tell me. I know this: I’m the same guy I’ve always been. Well, not really. A lot of things change as you get older. My heart’s the same. My friends are the same. My approach to things are the same. Hopefully I’ve matured and grown up a little bit. That’s questionable also, I hear. But, look, I always say this. The reason I’m not worried about now and how I’m evaluated, legacy, it doesn’t matter. 50 years from now when we’re all gone, people will look back without emotion and say, What has he done? What did he do for people? What did he do for the universities? Not just me, but all coaches. Your legacy is how did he benefit these people, these families? Did they benefit by that connection? Doesn’t matter what I say now. 50 years from now people will look back and either like what we did or not.

Q. Coach K recently on his radio show had Charles Barkley on. Both of them seemed to suggest that college kids, young pros all want to be rich and famous. Not all of them want to do what it takes to win, aren’t as competitive as players used to be. Would you agree with that? Would you say your team is unique in that it seems all of them are so competitive?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, you have to understand, one, where the kids come from. I’m not saying they’re all poor, but many of them are. They struggled, their family. Their family needs to breathe. They finally get a chance to breathe in life, to put their toes up. When kids go to the NBA, their first thing is, they’re not thinking about winning, and it’s not about money, it’s about establishing who they are. Then they worry about winning. That was every pro and that was always. Maybe Magic because he stepped into a team that had three other Hall of Famers, and maybe Magic is just a different soul. I believe he is. He’s a great guy. Most guys went into the league, Michael scored 40. He figured out, This isn’t going to win me a championship. He went back. He said, I’ll score less, defend more, win championships. All of a sudden he’s the best player in the history of our game, arguably. But I think the kids nowadays are the same. Look, Anthony is trying to establish himself. So is John. They want to win, but they need to be established. After they’re established as players, the whole focus becomes about winning. It’s not about money. It’s not about how many points. I think in a way you may say yes. Now, the money’s different. I mean, the money is different. As a coach, I try to respect that. These kids have a genius just like anyone else on our college campuses who can leave and go start a business and become Twitter, become Bill Gates, become Steve Jobs. They’re no different. It’s not size and athleticism. If they didn’t have a mind, there’s no way they’re going to make $250 million. You have to have the mind for it, too. These kids have a genius. We try to respect that. I mean, I’m not going to hold a kid back. I’m not going to tell him, You’re bad for wanting to chase your dream. I tell them all, You can always come back and finish. You have a spot at this university and we’ll pay for it. Go chase your dreams, we’re here for you.

Q. You take a lot of criticism for the one-and-dones. You’re not the only one who is doing it. Why do you think you’re the lightning rod for it?
COACH CALIPARI: Because I got a big nose (smiling). I don’t know. But it’s not my rule. It’s the NBA and the Players’ Association. Now, what we need to do is control what we can control as far as the NCAA and college basketball, which means don’t put up roadblocks that encourage kids to leave if they’re not ready. Don’t have them pay for their own disability insurance, know I got a $50,000 debt. If I stay another year it’s $100,000. Don’t do that to him. If a kid chooses to stay because he really loves college, but if he’s worried about his draft position moving drastically, maybe the NBA should pay for their loss of value insurance. If you really want to stay, stay. Understand, if we can get kids to stay two years and two summers, they’re a year away from a college degree, maybe a year and a half. Why wouldn’t we want that? Why wouldn’t we do stipends? How about this thought. How about parents being able to get a loan versus future earnings? What’s the problem? Their son is going to be worth $25 million. Let them get a loan based on future earnings maybe through the NBA. Let the NBA do it. Now you’re not pushing kids out the door. I don’t ask kids to stay and I don’t tell them to leave. I’ll give them my opinion. If they say, I want to stay, and I believe they should leave, they better tell me why. Patrick Patterson said, one, I’m going to graduate in three years. Two, I’ve never played in an NCAA tournament. Three, you’re going to move me away from the basket and teach me how to play basketball. I said, Welcome back. Those were good reasons. Don’t tell me, Coach, you can teach me to improve my free-throw shooting. Stop. They can do that up there. You’re the seventh pick of the draft. They can do it. Nothing would hurt me more than a young man coming back and moving the wrong direction in the draft and getting hurt. I couldn’t live with myself.

THE MODERATOR: We’ll bring the Kentucky players up to join us at this time. We’ll continue with questions.

Q. Given the success you’ve had, the graduation numbers you mentioned yesterday, why do you think for many you’re still a polarizing figure in college basketball?
COACH CALIPARI: I don’t know if I am as much as you want to portray it. Maybe I am. It’s not that I’m trying to be. Here’s my focus. I’m not focused on changing people’s minds who don’t know me, their opinion of me. I’m doing my job for these kids. If you like that, I’m happy. If you don’t like that or don’t like that kid, that’s your problem, not mine. I’m not doing this to please everybody. I’m doing this to please these young people and their families. That’s my mission. Now, as that plays out in the next 50 years, maybe I was wrong doing it this way, being about players first. Maybe I’m not wrong about doing this. We start moving in a direction to do more for these kids, help them. Not program to program, will be here 50 years from now. Kentucky’s program will be right here where I’m sitting 50 years from now. What we do for these kids change their whole lives and a direction, and that’s how I look at this.

Q. John, when Bo Ryan was up here, he said last year in Texas the shooting background kind of blew him away, it was so wide open, it was hard to adjust to. He thought this year would be better even with the dome. What is your take on that? Do you expect it to be better this year here?
COACH CALIPARI: I thought it was great. We won the game, so I thought it was outstanding. Plus the shot. Did it bother you, Aaron, on the game winner?

AARON HARRISON: No, it was good.

COACH CALIPARI: Tough playing in domes. The worst one we played in as a coach, we played in the 2011 Final Four in Houston, that was hard. Every team shot 30%. It was crazy. I don’t think that will be the case here. All four teams are good shooting teams. The backdrop and the way… We went out, 75,000. It looks like it’s 30,000. We play in a building that seats 25,000. I don’t think it will be an issue.

Q. For the players, if you could briefly, what you respect most about Wisconsin?
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS: Just a great team. They have a great coach also. A great program. I think all together you just have to respect the whole program as a general to make a team like that come together.

ANDREW HARRISON: Everything about them. They execute well, play tough defense, have a great player inside, so it’s going to be tough to beat them tomorrow.

Q. John, I know you’re focused on Wisconsin, but do you see any similarities between UConn last year and Michigan State this year? Why do you think it is a team like that can come out of nowhere like they have and get to this point?
COACH CALIPARI: They defend. Connecticut by the end of the year was a really good defensive team. Two, they got good forward play. In this tournament, if you have those two things, you have a chance. I told Tom after I watched Wisconsin tape with them, I texted him and said, You know, you can win this thing. He said, We know we can. So this is four teams, we all have a chance. It’s going to be a tough, tough deal for any of the teams.

Q. You cringed last week when one of your players used the word ‘desperation’ after the Notre Dame game. When you look back on that, because it’s finally coming into focus what’s at stake, how much did that game help prepare you for this moment?
COACH CALIPARI: The game was great. ‘Desperation’ is just not a term I’ve used. Normally they use terms that I use. When I heard ‘desperation,’ I said, Geez, I’ve never heard that word. I think it was from Willie, was the one that said it. But the point of, they didn’t want to lose and they were desperate to win, their will to win is what they’re about now. Playing a team like Notre Dame, who is an unbelievable shooting team, passing team, cutting team, efficient offensively, it was good for us. And we had to play near perfect down the stretch to try to win the game. And the guys did.

Q. For Willie and Aaron, what is the most upset you’ve ever seen Coach Cal?
WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN: Probably in practice when you’re doing an action or a drill and he’s explaining to you like two or three times and you’re still getting it wrong. I think it gets to him a little bit and he gets a little crazy.

COACH CALIPARI: Be careful.

AARON HARRISON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m trying to be careful. Just practice. When we just don’t come out to practice with a lot of energy. We come out kind of cool and things like that, so…

Q. Willie and Andrew, obviously a lot of pressure on this team. How have you been able to maintain your focus and avoid the off-court distractions?
ANDREW HARRISON: I think the pressure is more what other people have put on us, so I don’t think that’s like too real. We just have to stay doing what we’ve been doing, stay together, stick together, stick to the script.

WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN: Our coaching staff does a really good job of making sure we’re always together and making sure that every day we have dinner with each other, everybody’s in the locker room with each other for an hour or so after practice is over. We’re just in there chilling. They just make sure, you know, everybody’s staying together and everybody’s in it for each other, not in yourself.

Q. Aaron and Andrew, what were your first impressions of Karl and how has he impacted the game from your perspective?
AARON HARRISON: Well, last game he completely took the game over really. We just kept feeding him and feeding him. He’s pretty unstoppable on the offensive end. Really a great player.

ANDREW HARRISON: Well, my first impression, I mean, he was a freshman. It’s like everyone else when they’re young. Like Aaron said, he’s gotten better and better. When he wants to be, when he wants to be, he’s pretty hard to stop.

Q. Trey, can you talk a little bit about what it means to you to be back here in Indianapolis playing in the Final Four in front of your hometown, family and friends.
TREY LYLES: It’s just an exciting moment for me and my family. I’m just trying to approach it like any other game. You know, going to stay focused. You know, just got to go out there and play hard.

Q. Aaron, I’d like to know, we have all talked about this perfect season, something you guys don’t like talking about, you’re trying to win a championship. What does it mean also to be trying to do something that no college team has done in 40 years, long before you were born?
AARON HARRISON: It’s just a blessing to be on such a great team. I mean, I could tell my kids and grandkids about being on a team that is so far 38-0, just so blessed.

COACH CALIPARI: We’re not perfect. We’re undefeated. We’ve had teams that had their chances to beat us, and we figured it out somehow. The good news is, we talked about it as a team. If Willie played bad, we still won. If Aaron went 3-20, which he’s done, we still won. If Andrew didn’t have his spirit, if Trey against Notre Dame… We still won. Karl, West Virginia, we win by 40, he had one. I told him, We don’t need you at all. They understand their job is being prepared to be the best version. They’ve got each other’s back. We got enough guys. We are not a perfect team. We’re undefeated, but we’re not perfect.

Q. John, how would you define Devin’s role on this team and the impact he’s had this year for you?
COACH CALIPARI: When we recruited Devin, I knew he could score the ball. I didn’t think he could guard a little bit. Knew that would be a problem for me to play him. I saw him in Moss Point playing 40-year-old guys who would score on him and run by him. I’m like, Oh, my gosh. Now you look at him, not only does he score the ball for us, he guards and he rebounds. His shooting takes us to another level. But he’s had games where he’s 0-9 and we still won. He’s been a good teammate. He and Tyler in practice, these two can tell you, are ultra-competitive. They argue every call. Like if we make a call, Wait a minute, that’s our ball. That’s what they’ve added to this team. It’s not just as players. Their competitive spirit. They all feed off of one another. Then these guys get mad and try to beat them by 100, then they talk. That’s what’s been happening all year for us.

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One Comment

  1. Betsy Barnes

    April 5, 2015 at 1:14 am

    Very nice article. I think they can win the tournament, been pulling for them throughout!

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