For Kentucky to get well as a basketball team, coach John Calipari says they must first become sick.
Kyle Wiltjer says he was embarrassed by his own play.
“Just get sick of where you are as a player,” Calipari said. “One of the best things for all of us is when you realize that you can change your attitude and you can change your habits. Now you may not choose to because it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable. It maybe embarrasses you that what you were doing was wrong so you have to change, but when you do change your habits and you do change your attitude, your life changes. Ask Josh Harrellson. Ask DeAndre Liggins. Your life changes.
“If you choose not to change, then you’re looking for either self-pity or blame,” the coach continued. “I keep telling them, ‘You know why nobody cares about your problems? Because they have their own problems. They don’t care about your problems. Do you understand no one feels bad for you?’ This is more than basketball, we’re teaching life skills and I told them not everything is going to be rosy. We went through this a couple years ago but that team changed, that team changed.”
One player who has changed dramatically is Kyle Wiltjer. The sophomore was so bad at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10 that Calipari aired the player’s dirty laundry during the post-game press conference. Wiltjer had been UK’s best player in recent games.
“I publicly talked about Kyle after the Vanderbilt game,” Calipari said. “Why did I do it? Because I wasn’t getting any change just talking to him and the team. I’ve done that with a couple other guys. ‘But you shouldn’t say things publicly about guys.’ I’m not deriding them, I’m just making it factual. He changed.
“I asked the guys, ‘What changed for him?’ Dunking every ball. Screaming on dunks. Sprinting down the floor. Blocking out. Going and grabbing rebounds in traffic. He’s an animal right now,” Calipari continued. “I asked Kyle, ‘What happened?’ In front of his teammates, ‘Why did you change?’ He said, ‘Because I was mad at how I was playing. I was embarrassed.’”
The question now becomes whether Wiltjer’s teammates will join the parade? Will Alex Poythress show emotion and battle consistently? Will Archie Goodwin make smarter decisions? Will Ryan Harrow find the mental and physical strength to lead his team?
“If you’re delusional, you’re not going to change,” Calipari warned. “Delusional guys don’t change. They just think, ‘I’m good. My stuff is right. It’s somebody else.’
“We just have to have guys go out and accept where they are right now; where we are as a team; where they are as an individual player; what the team needs from them,” Calipari said. “I told them yesterday, ‘Wins and losses will come and go. You’re defined by your effort,’ and all of those things, ‘The success you have is peace of mind, the John Wooden-ism, knowing in your heart of hearts that you’ve done everything you could, you’ve worked as hard as you could for yourself and your team. You have peace of mind. You don’t have to worry about it. But, if you’re the last one in that gym, if you know you’re not giving everything, you’re never going to have peace of mind, even if we win.’
“I’m slowly, but surely trying to get guys to accept and surrender to each other and all of those things. We still don’t trust each other,” Calipari said. “Late in the game when it gets hairy, you don’t trust that the other guy is near you or that he’s not doing what he’s doing. We’re still into our own selves and that’s what we’re working on. You’ve got to get out of your own self’s way.”
If things don’t change soon, Calipari has one final, radical coaching move.
“There are some guys who should not be playing but about four, five minutes that are playing 30,” he said. “They really don’t deserve to be on the court but where we are right now, they’ve got to be out there. Or, we’ve got to sit them and take the consequences, which is the next step.”