John Calipari has spent much of his fourth season at Kentucky trying to reach his players, not unlike his first three campaigns in Lexington. But the message hasn't seemed to nest in the recesses of the players' minds, an issue that has left the Cats struggling to find any consistency.
The latest example came at Alabama where the young Cats went away from everything that worked while building a nine-point halftime advantage on the road and ultimately dropped their sixth game of the season. The barrage of wild drives by Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow, ill-advised fouls from Alex Poythress and errors in discipline and judgement from everyone in blue was in stark contrast to what Calipari began to see in a win over Auburn just days before.
“Look, we still haven’t totally bought in,” Calipari said after the loss in Tuscaloosa. “Individual players haven’t. But they just haven’t bought in, so we’re still doing it. But this is a team that’s growing and getting better. We showed signs and now we took a step back.”
The process appears to have worn on Calipari. Both he and assistant John Robic flipped their hands in frustration at a botched offensive possession late in the Alabama game, another sign the master plan hasn't unfolded the way the staff had designed. Each step forward has been followed by what must be considered a step back, leaving the Cats grasping to find any footing as the calendar gets ready to flip to February.
“First of all, let me say when I say buy in, it starts with individual players, that each individual player has to accept his role and has to play the way the team needs him to play,” Calipari said. “That’s the first buy-in. That’s been the hard one for us.
“The second buy-in becomes we have to be in tune with each other and on the same page and we have to buy in how our team must play for us to win and have the best chance to win. Those are the two buy-ins all coaches go through. The second part of that is getting them to play. Coaches, if we have to coach emotion and intensity and effort, you’re not really coaching basketball. And so trying to get them to understand if you do that, I don’t have to be on every play.”
Calipari has been as vocal this season as any of his previous three at Kentucky. He's tinkered with his starting lineup and rotation, publicly challenged multiple players on his roster and reverted at times to reverse psychology in an effort to get his message across. To this point, the epiphany he is waiting for has not come.
“When you’re concerned about how you’re playing and you miss two shots, it’s hard to chest bump somebody,” Calipari said. “If you’re more about the other guys on the team, none of that matters. I’m trying to convince them that the wins and losses, they come and go. You’re not going to be judged just by that. You’re going to be judged by your effort, your fight, your scrappiness. At the end of your career, that’s what they’re going to look at. Did you have it or not? They’re not going to say, ‘He won 97 games and he lost four …’
“Believe me, 20 years from now, they’re going to say, ‘Are you a competitor or not? Were you a battler? Man did he play hard. This kid really made great decisions.’ That’s how you define yourself and trying to get them more on process and less on results because we’re so young.”
With time starting to slip away Calipari admitted he has to remind himself to say calm in the eye of the storm.
“It takes time to get teams together and I have to be even more patient than I’ve been with this team,” he said.