Kentucky’s John Calipari breezed into Charlotte on Wednesday, fielding the most-hyped college basketball team in the country as usual and charming his way through a series of interviews at the SEC men’s basketball media day.
Calipari commandeered so much attention in a joint interview session with three other SEC coaches that Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings walked into the room 10 minutes early and started answering questions as a kind of pre-emptive strike.
“I know where everybody is going when John walks in – right to that corner,” Stallings said, pointing to where Calipari’s table was set up.
Sure enough, that’s what happened when Calipari sat in his chair at The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge.
The event was being held for the first time in Charlotte because the city is also home to the new SEC Network.
“Great hotel,” Calipari said. “I had never heard of this place. I never heard of this area, to be honest with you.”
And then the coach of the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country was off, fast-talking his way through questions that mostly related to whether this is the most talented team he has ever directed at Kentucky.
“I don’t think so,” he said. Calipari then named one squad with Raleigh point guard John Wall (who didn’t win the national title at Kentucky in his lone season in 2009-10) and another with Anthony Davis and current Charlotte Hornet Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (who did win the national title together in 2011-12) as two teams that had more top-tier talent.
Never, though, has Calipari had more depth. He readily admits that.
Kentucky lost in the national championship game to Connecticut in April. Then, for various reasons, Calipari’s best players decided to stick around instead of going the “one-and-done” route to the NBA.
Now, with the most significant pieces back from that national runner-up team as well as his usual recruiting class of high school All-Americans, Calipari is stuffed with so much talent that he will begin the season with a two-platoon system.
“Five guys out, five guys in,” Calipari said. He claimed he will stick with that 10-man rotation system even though it will more than likely lead to a couple of early losses.
Calipari joked that would be OK, though, since the state of Kentucky never expects much from its basketball coach or team.
“There’s not much pressure,” Calipari said. “They don’t expect you to win. You can go .500 and you’re fine. Just keep your head above water, they tell me.”
I don’t honestly think Calipari will be able to stick with the two-platoon for too long. But it is an interesting experiment, and one he can afford given his stature.
As for the fledgling SEC Network based in Charlotte, Calipari said it won’t affect his Wildcats but would be a boon to many other athletic programs in the conference.
“It’s not so much Kentucky (basketball), because we were on nationally all the time,” Calipari said. “But all of our programs who needed more exposure, they’re going to get it. They are showing volleyball games! I turn on SEC Network, I’m seeing volleyball. I didn’t even know I liked volleyball.”
Calipari’s team will test its two-platoon system in an early series of nonconference games that are hard enough to be considered “stupid” scheduling in the coach’s view (he, of course, had a huge hand in the schedule). That slate includes North Carolina in Lexington, Ky., on Dec.13th, as well as Kansas, Texas, UCLA and Louisville.
Calipari said most of his best thoughts come on airplanes, and that he recently decided during a flight that to best maximize his talent he needed to scrimmage more. This apparently falls under the theory that Kentucky’s second team will be harder opposition than many others’ first teams, although Calipari didn’t put it that way. He did say, however, that he plans for his practices to be “60-75 percent” scrimmaging.
As for the platoon system, he said he’s not wedded to each five-man unit getting 20 minutes apiece each game.
“It’s not communism,” he said. “If one group deserves more, it will get more.”
Calipari half-joked that a number of other college coaches have told him he would be crazy to consider a real two-platoon system. He did leave open the possibility of shortening his rotation as the season progresses.
That would mean leaving multiple All-Americans on the bench for long stretches, though, and Calipari said he doesn’t want to do that if possible.
“These kids are all within five percent of each other,” he said. “So I’m really going to try to talk myself into this.”