LEXINGTON — With Kentucky coach John Calipari, it’s never terribly easy to tell just what he thinks about his team.
He’s complained about a lack of toughness, rebounding and bench strength in recent games. He’s not always liked the way freshman point guard Marquis Teague has directed the offense.
Yet just before he gave his team a three-day holiday break, Calipari had this warning for opponents and/or confidence boost for his team.
“To this point I'm happy, even though I'm dragging some of these guys more than I want to. At the end of the day, I like my team,” said Calipari. “I've got a good team. And when we click and we all come together and we're all playing aggressive and we're all bouncing and talking and we're all making easy plays, this stuff gets scary.
“We're not close to that right now. But this thing could get scary.”
Scary? That’s high praise for any team, but UK¿is ranked third, leads the nation in blocked shots and has lost only one time this season with a freshman-dominated team going into Wednesday’s game with Lamar and then the Bluegrass showdown with No. 4 Louisville in Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Loyola (MD) coach Jimmy Patsos knows Calipari, like most coaches, can embellish a story or fact. But he also knows Calipari can coach better than many want to believe. He still remembers being a high school assistant coach 23 years ago and going to a clinic where Calipari, then the coach at Massachusetts, spoke.
“They hadn’t won anything yet and I said, ‘That guy is a really good coach.’ He just spent an hour talking about getting the ball with two feet on the floor and two hands on the ball, get possession and that’s where you build your program from. I had never heard of UMass basketball, I was in (Washington) D.C. at the time,” Patsos said.
Patsos eventually joined Gary Williams staff at Maryland for 13 years and was there when the Terps won a national title.
“I admired Calipari when I was a high school assistant coach. I followed him and what he did at UMass was unbelievable. He is a great basketball teacher. People want to say he is great recruiter and great builder of programs, but I¿am telling you the guy is a great basketball coach. Guys get better as the year goes on and he has enough talent I would look out for Kentucky. Just telling you. Look out for Kentucky,” Patsos said.
So why does Calipari not get more credit for his teaching skills?
“I think he is a great teacher. Not good, but great,” Patsos said. “I¿am a recruiter, too, but I¿can coach the game. He is all of that, but he is a great basketball teacher. He is as good a teacher as Mike Krzyzewski (of Duke), Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim (of Syracuse) ... and these guys that get credit,” Patsos said. “Playing defense, running the ball, running good sets. ¿His teams do that. I didn’t mean anything to cast aspersions on his overall coaching ability. Everyone says he is a great motivator and recruiter, but he is a good basketball teacher, too, with a lot of little things he does and I just think people miss out on that.”
Patsos said perhaps the best sign of Calipari’s teaching ability is the way he gets top high school players to listen and then improve. He noted Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Brandon Knight as prime examples.
“He has a couple of guys that are going to be in the NBA next year. We had some guys at Maryland that made the NBA and there are so many people in their ear that it can be hard to get them to listen to you as the coach,” Patsos said. “He has been teaching them fundamentals, which is really, really good and hard to do.
“Guys seem to like grow in their roles. (Michael) Kidd-Gilchrist was a much better player than I¿thought. Things like that. I¿knew (Doron) Lamb could play, (Terrence) Jones could play. Things like that. The kid 33 (Kyle Wiltjer) comes off the bench and had 24 points. I¿just think John is a really good X and O guy. I know that. I just don’t think sometimes the public understands what a good basketball coach he is besides being a recruiter.”
Patsos was already campaigning for UK freshman center Anthony Davis to follow Wall to Washington to play.
“He is the guy I¿kind of meant I would see in Washington (playing for the NBA’s Wizards) next year. He’s the guy. They already have John Wall, so they don’t need another guard. Lamb is an NBA player and good guy, but Davis has that ability to block shots and his ability to catch and dunk. There is no awkwardness to him. For a guy that long, I just thought Davis was really fluid, really smooth. He’s going to be in the NBA next year because he’ll get a lot better for John the rest of this year,” Patsos said.
“It’s always in the back of your mind when he’s down there. I don’t think he gets enough credit. He affects a lot of shots even if he doesn’t block them,” Loyola’s Erik Etherly added about Davis.
Patsos said he had seen Duke and North Carolina play several times this year along with Syracuse, all teams considered Final Four contenders. Now he’s a believer in Kentucky, too, after seeing the Wildcats in person.
“You see Kentucky and everybody says do they have the bench to compete (for a national title) and I¿think you have to say they do. I wasn’t sure, but I saw for myself. They are deep enough to win the national title, and that’s good because (UK¿assistant coach) John Robic is my friend and I root for them,” Patsos said.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise to me at all to see Kentucky in the national title game. I was at Maryland and we went to two Final Fours and won one, which was a little lucky. Are you one of the eight to 10 teams that could win it all? Yes they are. I have seen them in person now. There are some top 10, top 15 teams I can tell you are not. They are right there. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them back there in the Final Four or to see them win it all this year. They are that good.”