Kentucky basketball is back on top.
When the final horn blared throughout the famed Mercedes-Benz Superdome on a stormy April night, Kentucky's coronation was complete. The Wildcats were champions for an eighth time, ending a 14-year drought with a team that in so many ways resembled the one that ended an 18-year dry spell in 1996. Save for a cold December afternoon and well-timed mid-March hiccup, John Calipari's third Kentucky squad completed the longtime coach's journey to the pinnacle of the profession in near perfection.
But now that banners have been unfurled and rings handed out – even to a hip-hop star – what comes next? Where does Kentucky go from here? The natural progression from Elite Eight to Final Four to national champion leaves the only viable option for Calipari and the Cats as winning a ninth title to pull ever closer to UCLA.
As Calipari prepared for the arduous task of trying to do it all again he took time for a long question and answer session with reporters, touching on a wide array of topics about his team, the future of the program and where everyone goes from here:
QUESTION: You brought Julius Mays in as a graduate transfer who could play right away. What did you like about his game?
JOHN CALIPARI: Great kid who had performed at a high level who could make baskets, especially jump shots, and that wanted to be a part of this and understood what it meant. Are you good coming off the bench? If that's the case, you're good. He knew what he was walking into. It's hard. People say, why don't you just go out and recruit a Top 60 player who understands he's going to be the seventh or eighth man? Well good luck. To say you'll just go find that guy, it's impossible. Those guys think they're starters and one-and-done. It's hard to do.
QUESTION: Ryan Harrow came into the program as a transfer before last season. What did he gain from being a part of the team for a year even as he was forced to sit out because of the NCAA's transfer rules?
CALIPARI: He got beat up playing against a pit bull every day. I want Ryan to be the best lay-up shooter in the SEC. I don't need the cuteness. Get to the basket and shoot lay-ups. If they absolutely back off like they did against Marquis Teague, he shoots it a little better. Play through bumps and keep going. The guy is big? Shoot it over him. The good news is you have Archie right there who can play the position so we've got flexibility.
QUESTION: The only player on your roster who played significant minutes last season is sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. How does he fit into your plans and style of play this season?
CALIPARI: Perfectly. He'll be behind the ball all the time, so now he'll take it out and we are flying. If he rebounds it he'll be behind and we still may trail him into a dragging screen. We fly and as the ball comes back it comes back into his hands and he's a skilled player. I'm not trying to compare him to anyone but later in his career that's what (the Celtics) did with (Larry) Bird. That position, they'd go pick-and-roll, triple handoffs, he'd shoot the three. I see that being one of the things. I see us running random pick-and-rolls with him a bunch because what happens is people will say they don't have to guard him in the post but he's a really good post player and if you're too small he will score on you in there.
Anthony (Davis) played pickup with them one day and I grabbed him and told him to tell me about my team and the first thing he said was that Kyle is way better. He's way stronger, can do more things, I really like where Kyle is right now.
QUESTION: Wiltjer spent some time with the Canadian national team this summer. What did he gain from that experience?
CALIPARI: I knew he'd be up there with good players, get good coaching and have good competition. He and I talked and I told him he needed to go up there. We got him up there and I'll tell you what, they loved him. He was ecstatic. He said, 'Hey coach, they had this guy from the Lakers who had us doing stuff and I wish I could have stayed. He gave us some different things.' I asked how he shot it and he sad he was really really making them. He said he was killing it, that's what he said. It's great when you see kids gain confidence. That's the stuff in this.
QUESTION: You've maintained a pretty relentless pace since you arrived at Kentucky three years ago. This place can be overwhelming in its intensity and glare. Now that you've won a championship did you take any time to decompress and recharge the batteries this summer?
CALIPARI: Probably when I'm done in my last year, I'll run out of gas then. I took some time before the Dominican Republic that I had never taken before. When I got back I took some time and went to Boston with my daughters. I kept coming over to the office and my wife kept saying I was out of my mind. I'm just enjoying it.
I need to lose a little weight. I went to see a friend to make him feel good and as I'm leaving he pokes me. That's real good. I come over here to make you feel better and I walk out with you touching my belly. What are you doing?
QUESTION: The night you won the championship you said maybe one day you'd look back at things differently but you really were happier for the people around you than you were for yourself. With a little time for reflection, have you found any more satisfaction for yourself in reaching the pinnacle of the game?
CALIPARI: I'm telling you, you guys think it meant that much to me but it meant more to the fans and my family and the people who want to say I'm this or that. Those people. The reality of it is the only time I've (thought about it) was there was a video made of the last three years and I watched that video. It kind of touched me, like, wow. You think back and it's like, man, and then it's what's next. It wasn't that we had won the national title. You kind of forget that play against Mississippi State (in the 2010 SEC Tournament), but when I saw it it goose bumped me. Or John Wall's shot (in his first game), we could have lost that game and (fans) would have all been happy. We shouldn't have won that game. I can even remember Stanford stuff, we had no business (winning). Demarcus had to foul out for us to win. The Louisville game with Josh's coming out party. The shots at the end, how in the heck did we beat North Carolina and Ohio State, you tell me? How did we beat those two? Are you crazy? You look back in its entirety and it's like, daggone. But we've got to move on.
QUESTION: The challenge is different now, as Kentucky is trying to defend a national championship. How do you go about doing that with this team?
CALIPARI: We've already talked, that thing is done. None of these guys were even a part of that. We're worried about being the best team we can be. Does that mean we can be better than last year? Maybe. What does being better than last year mean? Really good. That means the team is really close, the team really has shared sacrifice. We're not worried (about last year). That thing is over and done. This is a new team. We don't know how we're going to play yet. That's the disadvantage (of having a new team). We have no base. Thanks goodness we could do some this summer.
We'll see. They knew coming in because it was explained very directly. Where do you find players that are this good that are this nice of kids? Part of it is the recruiting process. We're telling them the truth. It's hard here. It's a unique place. They're prepared for this stuff and what happens.
QUESTION: There was a lot of discussion and criticism of your scheduling over the summer. The Indiana series ended. North Carolina is off the schedule for a year. The home slate is not as glamourous as in the past. What do you think of your schedule?
CALIPARI: I wanted to play those Indiana games and I thought they'd be great games in Indianapolis but that's fine. North Carolina is being added back. You'll have Louisville and North Carolina, one away and one home every year. You'll have some neutral games every year. We're still in the process of the (potential) Duke game every year at a neutral site. Mike (Krzyzewski) says he wants to do it. What if everyone comes back? We may add some single shot games to prepare the team but we're doing what most teams are doing, playing a schedule that fits.
I do know the first two teams we are playing are going to give us problems. You're talking about veteran teams whose whole summer has been thinking about Kentucky. We could go 0-2 to start off and have a really good team. It'll be interesting. They are going to be major learning experiences and we have to play them that way. We want to win them all but we have to use them to learn.
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