After a magical 2011-12 season that ended with the Cats cutting down the nets in New Orleans, last year was a struggle for Kentucky basketball. John Calipariâ€™s team finished 21-12 and lost to Robert Morris in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament. Calipari reloaded in Lexington by signing a record six McDonaldâ€™s All-Americans. Many publications have the Cats ranked #1 in the pre-season. Calipari is 123-26 in his four seasons at UK and is hungry to get back in the conversation for the schools ninth national title.
KENT TAYLOR: How humbling was last season for you?
JOHN CALIPARI: Let me go back and tell you the lessons learned in the season. One, we did not think that Marquis Teague was going to put his name in the draft. We were down to one point guard in the program who had transferred in and had never played. The ones that were left were going to get caught in between the twins coming in, which means it wouldnâ€™t be fair, so we made do. Then we only had eight kids on scholarship, so now we didnâ€™t have the competition. Competition brings out the best and you can sit guys who arenâ€™t up to it and they have to work their way back. Last year, when a kid wasnâ€™t playing well and his confidence started to break down, we would take a kid out, but then we didnâ€™t have a choice but to put him back in. We had no one to put in, theyâ€™re not machines, theyâ€™re not robots. I think that was the biggest lesson for me, which is why we have 12 on scholarship now.
TAYLOR: On a Sunday afternoon, are you locked in, or are you watching the Steelers?
CALIPARI: Iâ€™m sick to my stomach right now because they are 0-4. Mike and I are friends; Randy Fichtner (Steelers quarterbacks coach) and I are friends from our Memphis days; Ben (Roethlisberger) has been a great fan of this program. Obviously, Marvin (Lewis – Cincinnati Bengals head coach) and I are good friends and I love the Bengals, but I grew up in Pittsburgh. One time I went to a game in Pittsburgh and it was great because Marvin and Mike are at midfield and I walk my dad out there with the coach of the Bengals and the Steelers. As weâ€™re walking off the field, my dad hits me and says, â€œyou know we couldnâ€™t even afford tickets to the game when you were growing up, and now weâ€™re at midfield, this is crazy.â€
TAYLOR: Having been a Steelers fan and seeing how much a win or a loss affects people lives, does that help you understand how Kentucky fans feel?
CALIPARI: Oh yeah, I went to the Steelersâ€™ Super Bowl in Detroit when they played Seattle; 75% of the fans in the building were Steelers fans, 25% were Seattle fans. In the city of Detroit, there may have been another 200,000 or 300,000 Steelers fans converged trying to see if they could get a ticket. When we walked out of the stadium, they wanted to buy your ticket stub. They were saying, â€œLet me give you $20 for a ticket stub.â€ Theyâ€™re like Kentucky fans, they want to win, they look at everything, they watch videos, they watch the tapes, they question the coach, itâ€™s a lot like Kentucky.
TAYLOR: Last year you didnâ€™t play a home game in Louisville for the first time in years, you did have a game against Louisville here, down the road do you see a time when you could play a home game here again?
CALIPARI: I would hope so. The way the contract with the YUM! Center is set up, it makes it hard for us to get in and play. Our program is at that point where everybody wants us in their tournament and everybody wants us in their buildings. Whether itâ€™s Chicago, New York, L.A., theyâ€™re all calling us to bring our team. Weâ€™d play in the Yum! Center but I donâ€™t want there to be an uproar saying Iâ€™m trying to infringe on Louisville. They just won the National Title, how am I going to infringe on what theyâ€™re doing? Louisville, however, is part of our state and obviously this is the Commonwealthâ€™s team so weâ€™d love to play there.
TAYLOR: How good is Julius Randle?
CALIPARI: Right now Julius is out on the floor playing. Heâ€™s got to figure out how to get an offensive rebound from 17 feet versus three and how to get to the post from 17 feet, versus three? Itâ€™s all new to him. He looked at me the other day and said, â€œCoach what are you going to do today? How can I get better?â€ Heâ€™s a great kid and a dominating kind of player.
TAYLOR: You have had some early practices with this team, which players have surprised you?
CALIPARI: First of all Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson are so much better; Iâ€™m no longer afraid to put them in games. Dominique (Hawkins) is competing, heâ€™s not afraid. Heâ€™s not quite to where those other guards are, but heâ€™s not afraid.Â Marcus Lee and Derek Willis are way better than I thought,
TAYLOR: What will Lee bring you this year?
CALIPARI: Heâ€™s an energy guy. Reminds me of Dennis Rodman. Then you start saying, where do I play him? Because Iâ€™ve got to play him. He can guard a point guard, a big man, a five, and he runs and tries to block every shot. He plays with unbelievable energy, but again, there are some other guys in front of him that are pretty good.
TAYLOR: How is Willie Cauley-Stein recovering from his hand injury?
CALIPARI: Willie will probably start practicing Sunday. Alex (Poythress) has been out. He just started practicing 35-40 minutes, he had a bad hamstring. Itâ€™s great because heâ€™s going against Julius and James Young and itâ€™s competitive. So, if you donâ€™t want to compete, then you get dunked on.
TAYLOR: You havenâ€™t shied away from talking about this team going 40-0, why have you embraced that?
CALIPARI: Hereâ€™s what I said. Before I retire Iâ€™d like to coach an undefeated team, because they say it canâ€™t be done. Everywhere Iâ€™ve been, â€œyou canâ€™t do this, you canâ€™t do that, youâ€™ll never do this, youâ€™ll never do that; his team canâ€™t do that.â€ Iâ€™ve had three teams almost do that, and before I retire Iâ€™d like to have a team go undefeated. If you are going to go 40-0, or compete to try, and you play Austin Peay, that game is just as important as playing North Carolina. So now all of the sudden you do stay in the moment, youâ€™ve got no choice.